Good for the sole

April calls for a recipe that combines the incoming and departing treats

Eating In

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Seagulls squitter over — head. Cracks in the pavement trip your feet. Potholes tear at your tyres. The precipitate topography of Hastings wears down ill-advised retirees, who stagger between slope and strand. Rubbish overflows from bulging bins. On the beach the stones stick in my dog’s paws.

Along the esplanade, civic vulgarianism has vandalised such fragments of faded elegance as Hitler spared. But there are compensations: the gaunt, ruined outline of the clifftop castle, the rickety charm of the unspoiled old town, the delightful church of St Mary Star of the Sea on the High Street, the inspired eclecticism of Bayte — an off-seafront bistro in St Leonard’s — and the wonders of the fishmongers.

Fish for sale no longer strew the beach as they did in Turner’s paintings, but the varieties he depicted still dominate the local trade: dabs and gurnards, which former generations foolishly fed to their cats, alongside — at this time of year, when the season for most species overlaps — the plaice and sole that feed fishermen’s pride and rich folk’s appetites. When fresh and new they seem to leap from sea to slab like harbingers of spring.

Only the tiny, nutty-tasting brown shrimp of the North Sea is entirely suitable

I like flatfish grilled or fried — sole meunière, breaded plaice and chips, or fillets of either kind sautéed in olive oil with lots of garlic. April, however, is when Dover sole is at its best, whilst shellfish reach the end of their traditionally appointed season.

It calls for a recipe that combines the incoming and departing treats. To shove a few prawns or langoustines into the pan is a simple and commendable step, which comes naturally to my fellow-Spaniards. But the sights and smells of Hastings, where the Dover sole are insuperable, demand an English dish.

The arguments for using potted shrimps as dressing are decisive. I can think of no other uniquely English shellfish recipe. One can store the results for early picnics, should the English weather allow. For immediate consumption as a rite of spring, the combination of toothsome shrimps and spiced butter complements the soft, fleshy texture of the sole.

I abhor people who pot any old variety: only the tiny, peculiarly sweet, nutty-tasting brown shrimp of the North Sea is entirely suitable. It doesn’t come from Hastings, and in the EU it would not get an English dénomination d’origine. The Dutch call it Dutch shrimp and the Germans German.

Most of the English yield comes from the Wash or from the famed beds of the Lancashire coast, where “Morecambe Bay shrimp” wriggles invitingly in the sand. But there are always a few trays of the fresh catch on the front at Hastings, glistening like heaps of coral and making all the other crustacea there look inelegantly large.

They are maddeningly fiddly to peel. Such are the complexities of modern, industrialised eating that many fisheries send their shrimps to Morocco to be peeled by a form of labour that is obscure and rationally inexplicable.

But if one gives the molluscs half a minute in briskly boiling water, leaves them to cool, and scrapes at the shells — with untrimmed fingernails, unstinting discipline and inexhaustible patience — alluring nudity will at last emerge.

To preserve the shrimps perfectly, the butter that coats them must be clear. Some shrimp-potters agonise over the effort to strain away the solids. If one intends to eat the dish promptly, the degree of clarity doesn’t much matter. But indifference to tradition always annoys me and, as in all work of any value, perfection is the only target worth aiming at.

Melting in steam, in a jug with a lip and a curved or concave bottom, makes it relatively easy to pour off the clarified liquid whilst leaving the whey to coagulate, like the dregs at the bottom of a claret jug. A scraping of nutmeg or mace, a pinch of red pepper and a sprinkling of dill confer flavour and colour.

After a few cool days under the crust of butter the shrimps will garnish Dover sole admirably; the dish will be pinguid enough without the fats that grilling or frying add. So steaming or poaching is called for.

Because I like lots of complementary flavours, textures and colours, I favour marinading and poaching the sole in a court bouillon of intense fish stock and wine vinegar, with chopped parsley and fennel, capers and green peppercorns for colour and a few slivers of carrot — but no onion, as it offends the shrimps.

Decorated with bijouterie from the bouillon and smothered in the sweet, slippery confection, the result will vindicate “England, now that April’s there”.

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