How to gut a fish


White fish like cod, haddock and plaice are just too expensive to cook in my lessons, so they must learn about them from books. As a child in the Midlands, fish was rarely on the menu – our Friday night fish and chips from a Kettering chip shop was the limit of my fish knowledge. Now in trendy London 1970s restaurants such as Christopher’s in Covent Garden, Trout with Almonds is a speciality dish along with Coq au Vin and Steak Diane. And Prawn Cocktail my favourite starter.

For my fish lessons I teach from O Level Cookery, where there are white fish, oily fish, and crustaceans. Then fresh and sea water fish.

‘What about eels, miss – which are they?’

Ah, those hideous, bony, thick skinned lumps of slimy, jellied things, served cold in a bowl at Manze’s in Walthamstow High Street. A ‘much-hallowed east end delicacy’. I wonder how long that shop will last!

‘Eels aren’t fish, Kevin – they’re … eels so don’t count for this lesson.’

Some of the boys are expert fishermen, and spend spare time at the Lee Valley fishing lakes catching eels, carp, pike and tench, which they put them back after catching.

For this lesson a whole shiny herring sits on top of newspaper on my demonstration table. Hiding quietly in the cupboard, wrapped in more newspaper, are more fish for each of them to prepare. 

They gather on the stools as I read from Fish Cookery by the Ministry of Food.

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 of it as we might.

The out-of-work speechwriters from Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ war room have clearly found new jobs creating school textbooks! I think I need to write my own.

‘Do you know why I’ve chosen herrings today, class?’

They look at their stool legs as I read on.

Of all the fish, herring gives the 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 it’s cheap and there’s lots of ways to cook it like soused herring.’

I hold the herring by its tail for the class to inspect. A weak gelatinous strand of blood slides sadly from its mouth. 

“How do you know if it’s fresh?’

Carol pretends to wretch and puts her hand over her mouth, but Ray is keen. 

‘Look at its eyes miss, and squeeze it.’

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

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

‘And what about its gills?’

I prise open the scaly flap covering rows of red fronds then open its bottom jaw, as I give out a gasp for breath.They are alert at least.

‘Gills should be bright red and its body firm. You’ll need this for the exam.’

Ah ha! The exam is the only reason for this smelly, fishy lesson!

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

Carol folds her arms like the teachers at our strike meetings while the boys hide their enthusiasm at fish cutting to splay some blood and guts.

‘Look at this lovely fish – silvery scales and perky fins.’

The scraped off scales glue to the formica worksurface, then I swiftly slit open the belly from head to bottom hole, as the intestines, blood vessels and liver spill out onto the chopping board. 

‘Here is the roe – mine is a female with eggs. Female is hard roe, male is soft roe. You’ll know the sex of your fish when you open it.’ They like the talk of sex and food.

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

The long silvery sac has a bubble of air which I squeeze backwards and forwards. They peer at the saucer as it passes round the group. Deep down, I reckon they rather like these barmy lessons. While their friends sit in a gentle, boring maths class, they have tales of gore and ghastliness. 

‘You’ll never guess what we did today. We sexed a herring!’

‘Chop off the head, clip the fins and press it flat on the board to remove the backbone. Roll it up with onion and then we’re going to souse it.’

‘Scouse it miss?’

My Midland accent sounds Liverpudlian to them.

No, souse it Ray.’

‘Have you ever met the Beatles, miss?’ Ray is jollying me along to probe into my private life.

‘Actually, Ray, I saw them live at Hammersmith Odeon in 1965, and everyone screamed and climbed over their seats to get to the stage. Except for me. We didn’t hear any of their singing.’

My status has increased from cookery teacher to mildly interesting human being. The Beatles are pop history, and miss saw them perform live. 

‘Let’s get on or we will never finish.’

My fish is rolled and its tail pushed into a fan, then into a Pyrex dish with peppercorns and vinegar, covered with foil and cooked in the oven until soft.

The class fillets their fish with a few ‘yuks’ and ‘this is disgusting’, and soon a vinegary, fishy smell wafts from the ovens. On my desk are two plates – one of beige, slimy male roes and the other perky female eggs. They fill my bins with fish heads, guts and backbones then clear up and gather their bags. As the herrings souse and soften I fear that no-one will return to collect them at home time.

Most of the fish that my students like comes in John West tins – pilchards, mackerel, sardines, pink salmon and tuna so next week we’ll use tinned salmon to make fish cakes.

2020 news

Jellied eels are traditionally prepared using freshwater eels native to Britain. The eels are chopped into rounds and boiled in water, vinegar, nutmeg and lemon juice before cooling. The liquid cools to a jelly, and jellied eels are eaten cold.

In 1980 I finished my first textbook Finding out about Food which sold over 120,000 copies. Oxford University Press suggested that I use my classroom teaching as the text and they liked the silly stories that I told in lessons.

This is a fishy one from the book

Why is a plaice dark and spotted on one side and white on the other? In the story Moses was cooking a plaice over an open fire and the fire went out. He was so cross he threw the fish back into the sea, half cooked and the fish came back to life. To this day plaice swim with one burnt side.

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