FISH 2 FRY
©Wolf Avni 10/7/2006
“Nowadays everything tastes like chicken,
everything except chicken... that tastes like fish. “ #1
One thing is certain. Life is not for sissies. It never has been.
In nature’s design everything devours everything else, exploiting any possible opportunity and strategy to do so, on every level from photosynthesis to protozoic, through cannibalism to parasitism. It is all constituent to the process of life - which really is nothing more than a near-perfect economy based on the continuous transformation and recycling of energy, beyond any power we have to manufacture, create, or for that matter, to destroy.
It is a model we humans strive mightily after in our own constructs. Yet Nature, at it’s most barbaric, most brutal, is pure in a way that socially acceptable human behaviours fall far short of. In us the process is flawed, perhaps because we forget that our fixations - emotional baggage of any type - have no intrinsic place in the design of Life itself. So, while the human mind is entirely adept at mimicry of any, and of all these strategies that we perceive at work around us in the natural model, our intellectualised facsimiles fail dismally to duplicate anything like the unfeigned efficiency of life itself.
The human condition always falls short. It seems always to consume more than it is able to produce, or to pay for. For a while there we deluded ourselves with the quaint notion that civilisation could ease the way of any societal individual undertaking that arduous adventure between cradle and grave. Yet all we did was exchange one type of jungle (its terms of reference unequivocal; survival of the fittest, the quickest, the most alert), for another, fuelled by far less pure imperatives. Until very recently in our evolutionary journey there never was any choice other than eternal vigilance. The slothful, the self-indulgent and the stupid wound up rapidly dead. Regressive genetics and self-destructive behaviours were quickly pruned from the bush. But now our social engineering has changed the rules, elevating human life - but only in the specific societal context of the ruling class - and the value of it, above all else and all other values. In so doing we have become, in evolutionary terms, victims of our success - and things are often not exactly what they appear to be.
This droll ember of thought was fanned to life by a chance meeting I had with a fly-fisherman who came to visit recently. I gave him our fishery regulations, which permit the culling of some fish for the table, whereupon he informed me in no uncertain terms - all bombast - that he never kills a fish... he is not ‘that sort’ of fisherman. It left me wondering what sort he might be?
After all, catch-and-release is nothing more than a fishery management tool... predicated on the premise that a trophy trout is too valuable, too rare a commodity to be caught but once, and that at the other end of the scale, a very small percentage of juvenile fish ever reach sexual maturity and their removal by an angler has very little effect upon population dynamics. Even were it not so, accidents happen and catch-and-release was never intended or conceived as a religion.
Turns out he was nothing but a lying swine anyway... in the course of his weekend I watched him catch more than one fish which he quickly murdered and stuffed down his waders, there to stew in the perspiration of his own mendacity. Turns out he was that sort of fisherman.
It got me thinking. With all this fishery but a simple cast away, it is inevitable, no matter how much we practice catch-and-release, that a good many free-range sweet-fleshed fish find their way to the kitchen table. For the last couple of eons our ancestry have focussed an inordinate energy upon the capture and epicurean dispatch of the various trouts . The literary record of the last 400 years is overwhelmed with references which extol everything to do with trout; from the ethic and philosophy of its capture through its biology to the flavour of its flesh. There are literally hundreds of gourmand recipes for the preparation of trout and I know of at least 2 books dedicated to nothing but the cooking of trouts. Some recipes call for poaching, others for broiling, steaming, basting, baking, stuffing, pickling, smoking and - generally popular - the reverent smothering of an overcooked and disintegrating carcass in some or other overpowering sauce.
And though I easily admit to an abiding fondness for a plate filled with slivered sheaves of cold-smoked trout, swimming in fresh lemon-juice and course-ground mixed peppers, with perhaps just a dash of Tabasco and a couple of capers for counterpoint - the zealot in me considers that there is truly only one way to cook a free-range trout. Firstly, the fish must be fresh - quiveringly so - for the greatest part of a trout is the delicacy of its texture and equally, the subtlety of its flavour. Forget frozen trout. They are good only for cat food, or perhaps as a vehicle to assist in the lifting of great dollops of some over-worked sauce with a fish-fork. Stale bread would do the job as well. Secondly, the fish must be gutted and gilled as soon as it is pulled from the water. A few hours of stewing in its own digestive process beneath the African sun is enough to ruin any fish, let alone the fragile flesh of trout. And anyway, a true and essential provider (as all fly-fishers surely are), takes pains to see that his prey reaches the pantry unspoiled. Thirdly, the fish, with head, fins, skin and scales intact, must be but lightly scorched on open, glowing cinders, till the skin begins to crisp. One may, if one must, place a sprig of fresh rosemary and a pinch of salt inside the inner cavity. The fish is cooked on each side till the skin begins to char along its length, taking care to turn the fish but once. The sweetest eating-fish are the 8-10 inch juveniles with which our wild-spawning rivers are filled. They want no more than 6-8 minutes on the fire and need no basting with oils, nor pats of butter, nor anointment with pungent herbs and intimidating spices. The natural oils in the fish will spit and crackle merrily enough, and the fish will poach in the juices trapped better by its own skin, than in any foil devised for cooks.
Ya, nee. Sommer n gewone ou braai, ek se!
#1. The Unpublished Epigrams of Surly, the Ghillie.