Tuesday, January 23, 2007

To Dress a Cod’s Head.

Today, January 23rd …

Our good friend Samuel Pepys dined with Sir William Batten, the Surveyor of the Navy on this day in 1663, upon a cod’s head.

I cant help noticing that Cod’s Head has fallen out of favour. What is strange is that it was once very much in favour, and not just by those who couldn’t afford a nice thick fillet. One household manual from 1881 describes it as ‘a very genteel and handsome dish’ - echoing the thoughts of several hundred years of fish connoisseurs and cookbook writers. Why has it fallen from grace?

Perhaps it is our ignorance? Fish head sounds like not enough meat for the effort of getting it off the bones. If we discover that ‘a cod’s head’ was usually shorthand for ‘a cod’s head and shoulders’, does the offer of more flesh for our fiddling change our attitude?

Is it the appreciation that shoulders or not, it would still be a nuisance to serve? Carving - the skill that was once essential to all men of good breeding (or housewives of good training) - seems to be a Lost Art. If this is the issue holding us back from truly enjoying a Cod’s Head, then some old cooking texts can come to our rescue with detailed carving instructions.

A Cod's Head and Shoulders, perhaps, require more attention in serving than any other. ... In carving, introduce the trowel along the back, and take off a piece quite down to the bone, taking care not to break the flakes. Put in a spoon and take out the sound, a jelly-like substance, which lies inside the back-bone. A part of this should be served with every slice of fish. The bones and glutinous parts of a cod's head are much liked by most people, and are very nourishing. [The Complete Cook...; Sanderson, J. M. 1864]

Some are even more detailed, and provide illustrations to assist:

Cod-Fish. Next to turbot, a cod's head and shoulders is the handsomest dish of fish brought to table. The fish-knife must be passed through the back from 1 to 2, and then transversely in slices. No fish requires more care in helping, for when properly boiled the flakes easily fall asunder, and require a neat hand to prevent the dish looking untidy. With each slice should be sent a portion of the sound, which is the dark lining underneath the back-bone, to be reached with a spoon. Part of the liver may be given if required. The gelatinous part about the eye, called the cheek, is also a delicacy, and must be distributed justly, according to the number of the party. [Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette, 19th C]

Or is our lack of enthusiasm an aesthetic thing? In our modern age, do we associate fish heads with fish bait or funny foreigners? Or is it the eye, staring at us reproachfully from the platter? It need not be this, for another 19th century household manual reassures us that “The green jelly of the eye is never given to any one”.

A final mystery is this one: Codfish presumably still come with heads. What do fishmongers now do with that part of the fish? As we are now informed and reassured, and keen to make up for this deficiency of Cod’s Head in our lives, we need to solve this puzzle.

In anticipation of our success in securing ourselves a good source of this Esteemed Delicacy, I give you this recipe.

Cods-Head to Dress.
Cut it fair and large, boil it in Water, and Salt, add a pint of Vinegar, so that all the Head and Appurtenances may be just covered, put into the mouth of it a quart of stewing Oisters, a bundle of sweet-Herbs, and an Onion quartered: and when it is sufficiently boiled, set it a drying over a Chafing-dish of Coals; then take Oister liquor, sliced Onion, and two or three Anchoves, a quarter of a pint of White-wine, and a pound of sweet Butter, shred the Herbs, mix them with the Oisters, and garnish it with them, adding withal some slices of Lemon, grated Bread, and a little Parsley.
[William Salmon’s The family dictionary, or, Household Companion…1695]

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Big Night.

A Previous Story for this Day …

Rhubarb was our topic a year ago to the day.

On this Topic …

We have previously considered other Funny Fish Bits.

Quotation for the Day …

The codfish is a staple food

For which I'm seldom in the mood.

This fish is such an utter loss

That people eat it with egg sauce.
Ogden Nash.


Liz + Louka said...

I thought cod was an endangered species. I never see it at the fishmongers, and I do see other fish heads (but not shoulders) for sale for making stock.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Liz - Yes, I think you are right about the cod being protected - I am sure it is in the Northern hemisphere, where the cod banks have been fished out. I must look up how many species there are, and if they are all protected. As for the fish heads - yes, for stock - like "scraps" such as chicken carcasses and other meat trimmings. Fish head curry in some places too, I believe. In the "European" school though, I think cod-head lost its appeal before it became endangered. I will be interested in comments from others.

Anonymous said...

Cod is at risk in the Northern Hemisphere, hence the extended controls on its fishing although there are new endeavours with cod farming as this is allegedly less damaging environmentally than salmon farming both to the fish and the sea. Strangely though I just happened to be looking at a recipe for roast cods head, Gigot style, studded with rosemary and garlic, season with black pepper and sea salt, drizzled over with olive oil and then roasted for 30-50 minutes, until blistered and crisp...there's no dainty way to dine on this so roll up your sleeves.
Other fish heads to serve in this fashion would be halibut and coley.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Cathy - thanks for the info, I did not know about the cod farming attempts. Did you cook the cod's head? I quite like the idea of it roasted, and eaten with the fingers (I dont have any carving skills!)

Anonymous said...

Hi again, find following article from the times re cod farming. It's going on in Norway and Canada as well as the UK. I didn't roast the cods head as yet as it's snowing in London right now and I think a thick rich winter stew is more in order today. Here follows the article :
Will organic farming restore faith in cod?
A director of a Scottish fish farm believes that his organic produce will make a leap towards repairing the damage caused by salmon farming — but not everyone is convinced, reports Richard Wilson

Karol Rzepkowski is being so assailed by demands on his time that a breathless excitement has crept into his voice. “It’s a bit crazy right now,” he chuckles, “but I’m not complaining.”
He has just returned from the hatcheries at the fish farm he manages on Shetland and there is little to gripe about. For Rzepkowski, a Scot of Polish descent who once ran a Caribbean diving school, has managed to create a utopian ideal: the first completely sustainable and commercially viable method of organically farming cod.

Britons eat 300,000 tons of cod a year and it was the ingredient of choice in traditional fish and chip shops until overfishing led to dwindling stocks in the North Sea and strict catch quotas were imposed.

These days, Atlantic cod still heads the Marine Conservation Society’s (MSC) list of fish to avoid and ethically aware shoppers have stopped buying it altogether.

Yet Johnson Seafarms, where Rzepkowski is the managing director, claims to have developed a way to farm cod that is both environmentally sensitive and economically feasible. And successful too.

Their cod is already on the menu at the renowned French Laundry restaurant in California’s Napa Valley, it has been served at Hollywood events attended by Demi Moore and Pierce Brosnan, and American consumers eagerly pay top dollar for it to be imported.

Last week, organic cod fillets went on sale for the first time across the UK in Tesco stores, and Sainsbury’s will stock the range — called No Catch . . . Just Cod — later this month, at a price on a par with wild fish. “It’s about £6 a pack, which is approximately the same as you pay for a good piece of Aberdeen Angus beef,” says Rzepkowski. “We’re saying to customers: ‘Here you go, we’re trying to do it right, we’re trying to meet all the modern ideals, but it’s never going to be for nothing.’ We piloted the product in America to see how it would work. We’ve had a lot of success. If it didn’t taste right, people wouldn’t buy it, no matter how environmentally friendly it is.”

Fish farming is an industry tainted by its past. The mass production of salmon, which involved the use of chemicals and poor farming practices, still casts a long, dark shadow, and not everybody is convinced by this conversion in ethos in cod farming.

Bruce Sandison, the chairman of the Salmon Farm Protest Group, says: “Seventy-five per cent of the stock of a Norwegian cod farm was lost to a new disease called Francisella. Has a complete and independent risk assessment been carried out? All the same assurances were made with salmon farming and this lurch into cod will result in the same mistakes.”

Sandison is convinced that cod farming, even if it claims to be sustainable and organic, will follow the same route as the salmon industry when the cold reality of the business world begins to take hold. “It’s a very interesting use of the word ‘organic’,” he adds. “When most people hear organic, they think it means natural, but there’s nothing natural about large-scale cod farming. There are terrible risks involved. The same errors will be made again.”

Johnson Seafarms is adamant, though, that it has learnt lessons from the salmon industry’s detrimental impact on the environment and consumer confidence.

The company switched to cod three years ago because it is better suited to being farmed — the fish shoal naturally and graze slowly.

The firm, based in the village of Vidlin, insists on only using first-generation farmed fish — their parents are wild cod from the surrounding coastal waters — so if any were to escape they would not impact on the local population.

The fish are kept in large, circular pens that allow them room to move and they are surrounded by double netting to prevent escape and invasion by predators. Monitored by remote-controlled cameras, the cod can play in adventure pipes and chew on flavoured ropes.

“They have toys, for lack of a better term, and I got some very strange looks at first,” laughs Rzepkowski. “But it was just a bit of left-field thinking. They have a three-year life span, then we kill them, so I feel a personal obligation to ensure they have the best quality of life. Cod like to chew, so I came up with the idea of using a coconut fibre rope with seaweed through it suspended into the nets. “It’s fantastic, the cod are able to express natural behaviour in the pens. If you’ve got a happy fish, you’ve got a tasty fish.”
Sorry it's quite long, but I trust of interest.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.