To Fry Fish

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You'll find this recipe in:
A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes
By Charles Elmé Francatelli
”Late Maître d’hôtel and Chief Cook to Her Majesty the Queen Victoria”
London, 1852

The Sauce:

'Sharp Sauce for Broiled Meats' goes very well with the fried fish recipe (which you'll find below). The main component of this sauce is a variety of pickles and it reminds of relish, albeit without the sweetness. I ended up with a double batch of this sauce, so before it was finished, I had eaten it with fish, sausages, chicken and pierogies. It paired well with everything, but it was especially delicious with the sausages.

Chop fine an onion and a pennyworth of mixed pickles; put these into a saucepan with a half-a-gill of vinegar, a tea-spoonful of mustard, a small bit of butter, a large table-spoonful of bread-raspings, and pepper and salt to season; boil all together on the fire for at least six minutes; then add a gill of water and allow the sauce to boil again for ten minutes longer. The sauce will give an appetizing relish to the coarsest meats or fish when broiled or fried, and also when you are intending to make any cold meat into hash or stew. In the latter case, the quantity of water and raspings must be doubled.

My Recipe:

1 small onion
1 ¼ cups mixed pickles – 225 g
(I used pickled green beans, cucumbers and red peppers)
⅔ cup apple cider vinegar – 140 mL
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tbsp butter
2 heaping tbsp breadcrumbs (this is double the historic recipe)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 ¼ cups water – 300 mL
Honey to taste (optional – not in the historic recipe)

Finely chop the onion and the pickles. Put in a small saucepan with the vinegar, mustard powder, butter, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. Simmer over medium for 5-10 minutes, then add the water. Allow to bubble for at least another 10 minutes. Add honey to taste, if desired.

My thoughts:
A big issue with this recipe is the measurement of using "a pennyworth of mixed pickles", which literally means "an amount of pickles worth a penny" and is not very instructive for those of us living today! I just guessed and I think it was a good ratio for pulling an amount out of the air. I did find that I needed to double the breadcrumbs to thicken the liquid enough for a sauce, and maybe I wouldn't have had to if I had put more chopped pickles in the pot.

I'm usually a stickler for historical accuracy, but I HAD to add a bit of honey to this recipe to cut the edge from the extreme vinegariness of this sauce! When I sampled it from a spoon when it was cooking, I would immediately start coughing: not a desirable trait for a sauce. I didn't add enough honey to sweeten the sauce , just enough so I could actually eat it. You may like it without the honey, though.

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The Fish

Fortunately, I had some bacon fat from when I made Piquant Beets, so that's what I used for frying my fish. Let me tell you, fish dredged in flour and fried in bacon fat is scrumptious, and so were the fried onions that we ate on the side.

No. 121. TO FRY FISH.
For this purpose you must have some kind of fat. Either lard, butter, or dripping fat, would be excellent; but they must be bought, and cost a little money. True; but then, if you can afford yourselves a bit of meat occasionally, by dint of good thrift you should save the fat from the boiled meat, or the dripping from your baked meats, and thus furnish yourselves with fat for frying your fish twice a-week; and let me tell you that by introducing fish as an occasional part of your daily food, your health, as well as your pockets would feel the benefit of such a symptom of economy. Suppose, then, that you have bought some cheap kind of fish, such as herrings, large flounders, plaice, small soles, or any other small or flat fish. First of all, let the fish be washed and wiped dry, and rubbed all over with a little flour. Next, put about two ounces of fat, free from water, in a frying-pan on the fire, and, as soon as it us hot, put the fish in to fry, one or two at a time, according to their size, as, unless they have room enough in the frying-pan they do not fry well; this must be carefully attended to, and when the fish is a little browned on one side, turn it over with a tin fish-slice, that it may be fried on the other side also; and, as soon as done, place the fried fish on a dish and then fry the others. When all your fish are fried, with what fat remains in the pan fry some onions, and place the round the fish, and, by way of adding an extra relish to your meal, just throw a few table-spoonfuls of vinegar, some pepper and salt, into the frying-pan, give it a boil up, and pour this round the fish.

My Recipe:

Fish fillets – herring, flounder, sole or plaice
Butter, oil or fat (I used bacon fat)
Vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
Salt and pepper

1) Chop the onions – how much depends on your love of onions and how many people you're serving. I cut up 3 medium & small onions for 6 sole fillets and it was a good amount for us.

2) Rinse the fillets with water and pat dry with a tea towel or paper towels. Lightly coat the fish in flour.

3) Warm up the butter, oil or fat in a frying pan over medium heat, then add the fish. Flip over when slightly browned on the bottom. When nicely browned on both sides, put the fillets on a plate to the side and fry the remaining fillets, adding butter/oil/fat as necessary.

4) When the fish is done, fry the onions in the same pan. Serve the onions on the side of the fish.

5) Remove the frying pan from the heat, then pour in some vinegar into the same pan. Stir, add salt and pepper and pour on top of the fish.

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Our historic To Fry Fish recipe instructs us "and when the fish is a little browned on one side, turn it over with a tin fish-slice, that it may be fried on the other side also". I've never encountered anyone calling a fish slice by that name in Canada, but today a fish slice is considered an extra long or wide flipper with drainage holes or slots.

Fish Slice.jpg

My understanding is that fish slices of this era were usually made of silver, not tin, and were used for serving, not flipping. The Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1887) describes a fish-slice as "A broad-bladed silver knife used for serving fish at table. The trowel-shaped blade enables a portion of fish to be removed from the backbone without breaking it into unsightly fragments".

Cassel's Household Guide (1869) delves even further into fish slices: "A silver or plated slice or used for this, as for other kinds of fish, because steel spoils the flavour of fish. A knife needs to be broad to divide the flakes without breaking them. A fish-knife has a sharp curved point to disengage the bones, and is perforated with holes to allow any water retained about the fish to run off. A fork is not used in helping fish." There's also very specific instructions for using a fish slice to carve different types of fish, so if learning that skill interests you, have a look at Cassel's Household Guide for some fish-carving tips fit for a Butler.

Nineteenth-century silver fish slices are gorgeous, often featuring the shape of a fish and intricately designed perforations. I had a look at the Royal Ontario Museum's online collections and found four beautiful Canadian examples of Fish Slices created from c.1815-1840 in Montreal and Quebec City, crafted by Nelson Walker, Laurent Amiot, James Ellis and Henri Polonceau; and I'll leave you with this little slice of fish-slice eye candy.

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