Herrings and eels

Most of the fish that my students eat comes in tins – John West pink salmon, pilchards, tuna, mackerel and sardines.

Many of the boys spend weekends in the Lee Valley fishing in local rivers and reservoirs, so I’m hoping they’ll like my fish lesson. Coming from the Midlands I know nothing about fish. People in Derbyshire ate so little fish in the olden days that they got goitre. This startling fact is  illustrated by a woman with a huge, swollen neck in one of my nutrition books which I pass round to shock my groups.

‘Look what happens when you don’t eat fish! Your neck swells up.’

I’d love to show them how to cook cod, haddock or salmon, but these are all well beyond our budget, and herring is the cheapest fish I can get from the fishmonger.

The girls come in, dump their bags, then sniff and wrinkle their noses suspiciously.

A tiny, shiny herring lies on the chopping board on my demonstration table, its mouth leaking blood. Hiding quietly in the corner is a  large pile of herrings wrapped in newspaper,  for them to prepare later.  All the same size. No squabbling.

This time there will probably be cries of:

‘I want the smallest one, miss. Don’t like herring.’

The class gathers their stools round my table,  anxious at what is coming next.

‘We’re going to learn about fish today. This herring is an oily fish, and cod is a white fish.’

‘What about jellied eels, miss – are they fish?’

It’s Kevin. Big bulky Kevin, who’s decided to come to my lesson today.

I don’t like eels –  hideous, bony, thick skinned lumps of slimy, jellied things, served cold in a bowl in the jellied eel shop down Walthamstow High Street. A much hallowed east end delicacy, and probably one of Kevin’s favourite dishes. It’s not wise to upset Kevin.

‘Eels aren’t fish, Kevin – they’re … eels, so we don’t need to learn about them.’

I read  from Fish Cookery by the Ministry of Food. A set of these books was sent  to all school cookery classes to tell us why fish is  important in our post war diet. They look very battered and jumped on so perhaps the previous teacher used them a lot.

‘We are fortunate to be an island race. Our coasts have many fine harbours for ships, and the seas round our shores teem with fish. While many nations with little or no seaboard would give much to have this valuable supply for its larder, we do not always take the trouble to use it as we might.’

This sounds like a Churchill speech.

‘We shall fight on the seas and oceans
We shall fight on the beaches
We shall never surrender..’

And now we must fight to eat more of the fish which teem around us.
I cannot lead this fish war. I think they’d rather do double French, followed by physics, algebra and geometry than eat more fish.

‘Do you know why we are using herrings today, class?’
They don’t answer. I read from the book again in a Ministry voice.

‘Of all the fish, herring gives best value for money. It can be bought fresh, salted, smoked, pickled or canned and there is no end to the variety of dishes that can be made from it.’

So, class that is why I’ve chosen it for you.’

They don’t care. And to make things worse, everything smells of fish.

‘I want to cook eels not herring.’ It’s Kevin, who so rarely comes to school I’d forgotten about him.

‘I’m going to bring some eels in next week.’

OK, Kevin, I think. That’s if you’re still allowed in school and haven’t been suspended for bad behaviour.

The girls shift on their stools and move further away from my table. Is it the fish that’s pushing them away or Kevin?

‘Today we’re going to make soused herrings. But first, how can you tell if this fish is fresh?’

I hold the herring up by its tail for the class to inspect. A dribble of thick red blood drops sadly from its mouth. The girls turn and clasp their hands to their mouths and Lucy bends over pretending to be sick.

The boys try their best to please me.

‘You look at its eyes miss, and feel it.’

‘Thanks John – look at its clear, shiny eyes.’

The herring’s eyes are dull and bloodshot. It has had enough.

‘And what about its gills?’

I thrust the herring towards them and pull open the flap that covers the rows of red fronds.

‘These should be bright and shiny and its body firm. Listen because you’ll need this for the exam.’

It’s the bloody exam again. Whenever we cook something horrid, I blame the bloody exam.

The exam is the only reason for dragging us through this smelly, fishy lesson. It would be much easier to cook jam tarts. But not as funny.

‘Now look at its mouth.’ I pull down the bottom jaw, opening up a vast chasm which could swallow a hardboiled egg.

‘Ugh, miss – why don’t you chop its head off?  I’m telling yer, I ain’t doing that.’

Jackie folds her arms and looks like the teachers in our strike meetings.

The boys shuffle on their stools, trying not to look enthusiastic at the chance of pulling out fish guts and using our sharp filleting knives.

I know that deep down, they all rather like these barmy lessons.

While their friends sit in a gentle, boring maths class, they come out of my classroom with tales of guts and ghastliness.

‘You’ll never guess what we did today..we saw inside a herring in COOKERY!’

‘Look at this lovely fish – silvery scales and perky fins on the top and bottom.’

I scrape off some scales which glue themselves to the Formica work surface, then slit open the belly from its head to its bottom, and the guts, blood vessels and liver spill out onto the chopping board.

‘Here is the roe – mine is a female with eggs, but you won’t know what sex your fish is until you open it.’

The boys smirk – they like to talk of sex.

‘And this is the swim bladder which keeps it afloat.’

I take out a long silvery sac and squeeze the bubble of air backwards and forwards. The boys peer at the saucer as it passes round the group. This is interesting. They’re looking forward to getting their own fish.

Quickly I chop off the head, clip the fins and press the herring flat to remove the backbone. I hold the boned herring up for all to see. The boys seem impressed with my dexterity and perhaps are thinking I’d make a good fishing companion. I wash the herring in the sink to remove blood and entrails, and it’s ready to use.

‘Now we are going to souse it.’

‘Scouse it miss?’

My Midland accent sounds Liverpudlian to them.

No, souse it Kevin.’

‘Have you ever met the Beatles, miss?’ Kevin is trying to jolly me along and find out more about my private life.

‘Actually, Kevin, I saw them live in a large theatre in Hammersmith, and everyone screamed and climbed over their seats to get to the stage. Except for me.’

I’m rather proud of sitting quietly at the back, trying to watch this famous group play. But to teenage boys and girls this sounds very prissy.

‘Miss – which one did you like best?’

‘Well Paul of course.’

Paul with the dark, floppy hair and round boyish face, in the tight fitting dark suit. Paul, the one who could sing ‘She loves you’ and play the guitar with his left hand. Paul who was going out with Jane Asher who had ginger hair.

I don’t think Paul noticed that I was the only one in the audience who didn’t scream. That I watched quietly, hoping he might catch my eye in the seats at the back.

They stare at miss who has been to a pop concert where everyone screamed. Except miss.

I wonder if my status has changed from fussy cookery teacher to mildly interesting human being.

I roll up the fish with chopped onion, twist the tail so it sticks up like a fan, put the fish in a dish and into the oven to cook.

‘OK, now you go and do it and bring me your roe and we can fry it for lunch.’

I undo the newspaper package to share out the pile of herrings. There are moans as they come to collect their dead fish.

The boys help the squeamish girls with the boning and soon a vinegary, fishy smell wafts from the ovens as the herrings gently souse. On my desk there’s a plate of beige, slimy roe, and another with firm herring eggs and the bin is full of fish heads, guts and backbones.

They pack and go and I fear that no-one will return to collect their fish at home time.

Next week we’ll use tinned salmon and make fish cakes.

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