A friendly Pike | Getty

Sex and the singular fisherman

Pike abound in British rivers yet are seldom caught for the table

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

La tupina in Bordeaux is the best restaurant I have eaten in. Michelin stars are counter- indicators. La Tupina has none, never will have. It is an absolute stranger to la cuisine chichiteuse. 

Until recently it was run by the man who founded it in 1968, Jean-Pierre Xiradakis. His menus sometimes included lamprey, shad roe, eel and elvers. A few years ago he drove my friend and TV producer Frank Hanly and me 50km north from the city to a hamlet called La Belle Étoile on the right bank of the Gironde where his supplier of these creatures moored several specialised boats, one for each estuarial quarry.

That morning, as we fished them, we ate the far side of a surfeit of elvers cooked in olive oil, garlic and piment d’Espelette over a spirit burner on the bridge of the vessel. This was greed posing as research for a film we never made: it was the sole occasion in 35 years in telly when I encountered base dishonesty as well as the usual bovine stupidity.

Trawling at low speed for several hours close by the bank was a lesson in patient exploitation of a natural resource. The man from La Belle Étoile was a businessman-peasant in a European tradition of hunting and picking and fishing for the pot. A practical tradition which Britain largely eschews for reasons of sloth, fastidiousness, sentimentality and, of course, class. The only people who killed for nourishment or profit were poachers and rustlers. Want drove them, and so did resentment: unsurprising when you consider the class and pecuniary divide made manifest by “field sports”.

The gulf between game fishing and coarse fishing is as wide as the Hampshire Avon at its widest

As a child I was invited by various members of the Salisbury bourgeoisie whose children were my contemporaries to enjoy the privilege of being a beater along with them. This was a first step to getting, one day, your very own gun to shoot pheasants or partridge. Ungrateful brat that I was I declined, having no taste for servility or for getting cold and wet. I had enough of the latter due to my father’s attempts to make me a fisherman. Not, emphatically, the kind of fisherman who sits on the bank of an oil-slicked canal with a six-pack of Kestrel, a plastic picnic box, several well-used editions of Readers’ Wives, bloated floats and a keep-net. No, I was to become a game fisherman, a proper fisherman, a habitué of chalk streams, flies and plugs and spoons and Mitchell gyroscopic reels (one sits like a metal insect on a shelf above my desk, a memento of my father). 

The gulf between game fishing and coarse fishing is as wide as the Hampshire Avon at its widest. It’s a vestige of feudalism, which is alive and kicking in much of Britain: the cap-doffing and acceptance of hierarchy in places where large aristocratic estates are found is demeaning. Killing salmon (one does not merely catch them) and trout is the pursuit of “gentlemen” (an appellation exclusive to drawling Jermyn Street PRs with loud breast-pockets). Coarse fishing — the adjective says it all — is reckoned infra dig, proletarian, common, etc.

These distinctions are petty. They are also indicative of Britain’s gastronomic incuriosity and wastefulness. Pike, magnificent creatures, murderously omnivorous and keenly cannibalistic, abound in British rivers yet they are seldom caught for the table. During the 16 years I wrote about restaurants in The Times I came across only one establishment in Britain which served this most delicious fish in any form. 

Pike is unquestionably superior to farmed rainbow trout, which are fed a diet that includes dyes to render their flesh pink and supposedly winsome. The effluent from these battery fish farms damages stocks of white-fleshed brown trout which are certainly OK but, again, not a patch on pike with beurre blanc.

The reluctance to consume fish which are not visually appealing is a sort of categorical mistake which confuses senses

The Prime Shit’s infantile exhortation to the little people to eat more fish whilst he, The Expensive Fianceeee, Wilf The Unfortunate and Dilyn The Potentially Rabid group-gorge on JCBurgers delivered by the cwt in Daylesford trucks is no more than usually vacuous and will doubtless involve him dressing up as a fish, a fish-gutter, a trawlerman, Captain Birdseye, a Moray skinker and Poseidon, a poor man’s Lucy Worsley. It’s not the greatest advertisement for his comprehension of “his” volk: due to his masterful solipsism he can’t read their mood.

More than any other country in (or around) Europe, Britain is squeamish. It is crippled by a fastidious streak which derives ultimately from the iconoclasm of many centuries past, from eternal corporeal embarrassment, from the conviction that sex is a grubby, shameful, net-curtains kind of activity: it is that conception of grubbiness which fuels the cottage industry in superinjuctions brought by those who don’t want to get found out, who in a post-Catholic rather than a post-Protestant, post-puritan society would just brush it off. Whatever it is.

The irony of British squeamishness is that people who reject, say, tripe, kidneys, chitterlings, liver, brains and breads just as they are, in their natural post-abattoir state, are most likely to eat them unknowingly in meat-style products which are packaged to appeal to the eye, the organ Britain eats with.

The reluctance to consume fish which are not visually appealing is a sort of categorical mistake which confuses senses. It’s a mistake that is unlikely to be corrected when affluence dissipates and severe shortages afflict the UK, a certain occurrence given the isolation which comes in the wake of “sovereignty”, a word which here means nothing other than the machtergreifung of a mendacious cult. Unless they want to become famine rations Wilf and Dilyn should consider making a bid for freedom, soon.

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