Monday, 4 April 2011

Eating in in Lyme Regis

Our recent trip down to Dorset wasn’t just about eating out.  Even with the kind generosity of Mark Hix, we could scarcely afford it to be, but even if we could have done, the reason that Dorset restaurants are worth the slog down from London (which is hardly short of places to eat out, after all) is not just the view out of their windows (although the view over The Cobb, from Hix Oyster & Fish House, must be one of the finest views out of any restaurant window anywhere, and worth the trip in its own right), it’s also because of the great local produce, from land and sea, that they have access to.  And I wouldn’t want to go all that way, and have that produce available, and not have a go with it myself.  So self catering was a given, and the choice of accommodation involved a lot of peering at Jpegs on websites, trying to work out which apartments/studios/cottages we were looking at had gas hobs and more than a single square foot of work service in their kitchen/ette.

Being in Lyme itself, with a view down to the sea (although the sea itself spent most of the time lost in haze, so although I’m sure it was visible, it was mostly indistinguishable from the sky), rather than inland with a view out across rolling hills and lush pasture, the focus, for this trip, was very much on fish.  The hope was that we might even get a chance to catch some of our own.  We went out with Harry May, another mate of Mark Hix, incidentally, skipper of the mackerel boat Marie F, who told us that, although it was really too early in the season to expect the fish to be back from their deep sea wintering waters, the previous day, presumably thanks to the unseasonally balmy weather, they’d been pulling in mackerel like there was no tomorrow.  Unfortunately for us, it turned out that there really might as well not have been, a tomorrow that is, from the point of view of catching mackerel, at least.  Because that was the day we were out, and we had not a nibble.  So much for my sushi plans.

So, a trip to the fishmongers it had to be, but as that was the Old Watch House, all but on The Cobb itself it came a close second to actually having caught the fish yourself.  On the first day we took home a cooked crab for lunch.  It was just medium sized, but weighty, boding well for the quantity of meat inside the beautiful rust brown shell.  That boding didn’t let us down.  The meat, both brown and white, was not just plentiful, but delicious.  Scooped and picked out of the shell into a bowl, seasoned with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a light drizzle of extra virgin olive, and served with thick wedges of excellent, nutty granary bread, and a little salad, it was quite possibly the best crab I’ve ever had.  And as I didn’t cook it myself, only picked out the meat, I can say that without any fear of boastfulness.  It was all down to the crab itself, and to whoever had boiled it, nothing to do with me.

We even had enough meat left over from lunch to make a crab linguine dish for supper, the technique for which was more or less identical to my previously posted smoked trout linguine recipe, except without the smoked trout, obviously, and the crab stirred through the pasta right at the end before serving.  That was also delicious, and I will happily take at least some of the credit for that.  I didn’t, unfortunately, for reasons I can’t quite explain, get any good photos, of either the crab itself, or the pasta, so crabby pictures will have to wait for another time (the linguine looked very much like the smoked trout version anyway, if your imagination needs the assistance).

That wasn’t the end of the crab though, I boiled up the leftover shell, with an onion, a couple of sticks of celery, a clove or two of garlic and some herbs and spices (thyme, bayleaf, peppercorns, mustard, fennel and cumin seeds), and got a litre of delicious, crabby stock, half of which I used to make a crab and wild garlic risotto for dinner on our return to London.  Just a pure simple, plain risotto, made with just 3 rashers of finely shredded smoked bacon, a scattering of pine nuts and 4 shallots, following the technique described here.  Right at the end, when the risotto was ready to serve, I stirred through a handful of the wild garlic leaves and stalks that we’d gathered from the pathside on a walk down from Chideock (after our fabulous lunch at The George) to the sea.  It was beautifully, simply, delicious.

Back in Lyme, though, having failed to catch any mackerel of our own, I had fully intended to buy some, but it seemed that either all the fish that had returned early to the shallow waters around Lyme had either been caught the day before by Harry and his mates, or had realized their error and buggered off back to the deep ocean for the last weeks of their winter sojourn.  Either way, there were none on the slab at the Old Clock House.  They did though, have some very shiny, bright eyed, red gilled herring, freshly landed and local.  As my plan for the mackerel had been to serve them essentially raw, but cured in citrus juices - that is, effectively, lightly pickled – then herring seemed a most appropriate substitute.

Herring ‘Escaviche’

I use this way of preparing fish, most commonly, as I say, with mackerel, but I’ve done it with sea bass too - you could use any firm fleshed fish, the crucial thing is simply that whatever fish you use be really good and fresh, but I think it works best with an oily fish like mackerel or, as in this case, herring.  I call it ‘escaviche’ because it’s not quite a traditional Spanish/Moorish escabeche, and not quite a Latin American ceviche, but something in between.  In essence it is escabeche, except for the one fundamental difference that in an escabeche the fish is cooked before pickling, which, to my mind, if you have good fresh fish, is unnecessary.  So you might say it’s a ceviche, except that in a ceviche, the fish is usually diced into small cubes, and marinated briefly, almost just dressed in a citrus dressing, and served like a piscine steak tartare.  So ‘escaviche’ it is then, until I think of something better.

The first thing to do is fillet your fish, although of course you can get your fishmonger to do that for you (but if you do, make sure he gives you the left over ‘frames’, for making stock with – you can always freeze them if you don’t need the stock right now).  On this occasion, as I was using herring, and they are small, I decided to try butterflying them – although this is by no means necessary.  This is something I’d never done before, and, as we were on holiday and away from both my books and an internet connection, I had to rather improvise the technique.  I did each of the two herring I had in a different way, first slicing along the belly and folding out from the spine, secondly slicing along the spine and folding out from the belly.  The latter proved altogether more successful than the former, both aesthetically and in terms of leaving fewer small, feathery, but nonetheless annoying bones in the fillet.

Once filleted and cleaned, lay the fish, skin side down in a shallow dish and prepare the marinade.  Grate the zest of an orange and a lemon over the fish, then squeeze the juice (I used the whole orange and half the lemon, it will depend entirely on how juicy they are) into a pan, along with the juice of two limes, about half a glass of wine and a few peppercorns and mustard seeds, and put it on the heat.  Meanwhile salt and pepper the fish, and scatter over some leaves of soft lemon thyme (or parsley would do, ordinary thyme might be a little tough and bitter), finely sliced red onion and a handful of capers.  When the pan of juice and wine comes to the boil, pour it over the fish.  You will see the outer surface of the fish turn immediately opaque, and the fillets clench.  Turn them in the dish so they are now skin side up, and simply leave to marinate.  Quite how long to leave it is up to you, how confident you are in the freshness of the fish, how thick the fillets are and how squeamish you and/or your guests are about eating uncooked fish.  Leave it an hour and it will be, if not sushi, then effectively very lightly seared on the outside, sushi on the inside (this is where the thickness of the fillets will really make a difference).  Leave it overnight in the fridge and it will be, effectively, cooked through.  Either way is good.  Apart from the ‘doneness’ of the fish the main difference will be that the shorter the time it’s in the marinade, the more you’ll taste the fish, the longer it’s in, the more you taste the citrus.  It’s entirely up to you.  And if you are a sushi fan, and want it as sushi-ish as possible, let the marinade cool thoroughly before pouring it over the fish

These particular herring came full to bursting with fat, creamy roes, which had a queasy beauty of their own which put me in mind of Francis Bacon. Becca thought Georgia O'Keefe.

I simply seasoned them with salt & pepper, lightly fried them in a little olive oil, and served on toast with wedges of lemon as a simple starter.

Mussels in cider

According to the nice man at the Old Clock House, mussels are at their best at this time of year (and should be till the end of this month, the last with an ‘r’ before spawning season – although cultivated mussels are available, and sustainable, all year round), and they certainly looked good so I took a big scoop, about a kilo, I guess, of those to cook up in some local Dorset cider.

I just scrubbed the mussels, pulling off the “beards” and discarded any that didn’t firmly close while I was doing it.  Then put them aside in a big pan of fresh, cold water while I roughly chopped some celery (you could use onion, and I might well if I was using wine instead of cider, but celery and apple have a special affinity), about three average sized sticks would be about right, and finely sliced a little garlic and chilli.  I heated some olive oil in a good size pan with a lid (preferably a glass one) and sauteed the celery, garlic and chilli with plenty of salt and pepper, and a little lemon thyme (ordinary thyme would do, or you could leave it out entirely – I just happened to have lemon thyme growing in a pot on our holiday rental balcony and it seemed a shame not to use it).  When the celery was just starting to soften, I strained the water from the mussels and tipped them into the pan, gave a good stir, poured in about 200ml of cider and covered the pan.

I let the cider come to the boil and steam the mussels for just about three or four minutes, until they’ve all opened up and you can see the plump orange pillows of mussel meat inside the blue black shells (hence the glass pan lid being such an advantage).  Then I took off the lid, dropped in a handul of the tender yellow leaves pulled from the heart of the celery and stirred it through, and served the mussels in a bowl with some good chunky bread.  Really easy.  Really, really good.

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