The Good Friday Fish Feast

A friend was able to source fresh trout for our gathering at the easter weekend, so I could finally try out some of my fish recipes on my unsuspecting fellow medievalists. The result was a Lenten spread that was both adventurous and luxurious. Altogether, we had trout filled, baked in pastry, grilled with herb filling, and marine trout cooked “two ways”, all served with sauce, rice, and a salad. But the meal began with a soup, as the 1490 Kuchenmaistrey instructs us:

1.xxviii Item reinuisch (lit. Rhine fish) and bolcken (Ehlert reads this as dried fish) boiled in water together with greens (kraut dar bey) or with sauces, that is good. The same fish and all smoked or dried fish may be served in a pepper sauce or with soup and greens on all fast days.

This was simple to do: A basic vegetable broth – storebought because I only got there Friday mid-morning due to train delays – with young spinach for the kraut. That term can mean any kind of leafy greens, so we went with something classy rather than the more common cabbage. The soup was served out with a piece of smoked trout and a small breadroll. Opening a meal with soup is a modern convention, of course, but we are fairly modern in this regard.

There followed several fish dishes as the main course, first a plain grilled trout. I filled it with a paste of herbs and nuts, a recipe that isn’t really based on any specific source but that I use to have something that is certain to work and appeals to the less adventurous. There is a reference to filling fish with sage in Anna Wecker, though:

For bream, trout, roach, perch, eel, nase, and the like, take mace and cloves. Also put sage behind their ears (gills) (and) into their bellies. Prepare it well with the spices beforehand and salt the innards inside the cuts well. If they have none, place them on a griddle and dry (roast) them gently. The vinegar makes them nicely firm.

The trout were very fresh and flavourful and the herb paste sharp, so this was a success.

Then, there was trout cooked in a pastry. This was based on a recipe in Anna Wecker’s Köstlich New Kochbuch of 1598, a spice mix to rub the fish with and bake them:

Cut them, then let them lie in vinegar overnight or from the early morning until the evening. Then prepare put them in the pastry case with pepper, ginger, mace, cloves and cut sage like you know (to do) with salmon. That is a hearty fish for pastries for those who know how to cook it right. You may add lemons, but they add nothing to it except ostentation (herrligkeit) because they dry out and stick to the top crust. You eat trout in place of salmon. Bake it for an hour and a half. Adorn and shape (the pastries) according to whether they are large or small. I will not take too much time here, (do) as was said before with pike, carp and (other fish) that are good for roasting.

Again, this is straightforward and uncomplicated: Let the fish lie in vinegar, then rub it with spices, wrap it in pastry dough and bake it. The pastry dough we used was a plain egg-enriched hot water paste shaped by my far more artistic kitchen companion. The result was delicious, though it was slightly challenging to get the bones out.

The next dish was slightly more of a technical challenge. I tried a proof-of-concept for fish cooked three ways. This conceit shows up numerous times in the sources and seems to be a perennially popular dish going back straight to Abbasid Baghdad. Meister Hans has one description of it:

Recipe # 257 von ainem visch gepraten, gesotn und gepachen dem thue also

Of a fish that is roasted, boiled and fried; do (to) it thus

Item if you wish to make three kinds of dish out of one fish that nonetheless stays whole: Take it and lay it on a griddle, and sprinkle the head part with flour and drizzle it with hot fat until it appears to you to have had enough of this and it turns brown.

Around the middle part, wrap a nice white cloth, around and around, and pour hot wine and water mixed over it, and salt the wine and water. Sprinkle the middle part with that a little and steam (seud – more usually means seethe or boil) it nicely until it is enough. And add a little blood to the wine.

Salt the tail part nicely and stick it with a knife and place embers under it, and roast it at a low temperature on the griddle.

This way, you have three dishes of one fish, that is one fried, the second boiled, and the third roasted.

I used a marine trout, frozen, to have a fish that was large enough to try out at least two of the three methods, but I would love to do this on an actual fire and weith a fish large enough to actually accommodate all three methods. Here, I wrapped the from part in a clean cloth soaked in wine which the tail section was drizzled with oil and dusted with flour. Cooked in the oven, it turned out quite good. The flesh was notably different, bith the wine-poached section moister, the flour-dusted end firmer and flakier. Both were good, if unremarkable, but this is definitely something to develop. Serving a whole fish cooked this way along with a battery of sauces as other recipes envision would make a lovely centre dish for a feast.

Finally, I wanted to see how hard it was to produce a filled fish, a recipe that occurs in several sources in a wide variety of versions. This is the one from the mid-15th century Innsbruck MS:

50 If you would make a filled fish (gefulten visch), detach the skin starting from the tail and take out the flesh, and boil it with spices (read gewurtzen for gelburtzen) and raisins. Place that back into the skin and close it with skewers (zwecken), and then roast it or serve it in a ziseindel sauce and do not oversalt it etc.

Getting between the skin and the flesh proved difficult and required much fine work with a small knife, but once I had managed to produce an opening, it was possible to loosen the insides with a blunt, flat butter knife and even the fingers quite effectively. It is still a hassle, but definitely not as hard as I had feared. Removing the flesh required cutting the backbone with shears, but getting it off the bones was ahgain easier than I thought. I added extra fish – frozen fillets – to bulk it out, seasoned it with ginger, pepper, cinnamon and cloves, added raisins, processed it (in lieu of a mortar) and returned it to the skin. For the first trial run, I opted to poach rather than roast it for fear of having it fall apart, but it proved quite durable. Closing it up again – we used thread rather than wooden skewers – was not easy, but the problem proved getting through the belly skin at all rather than tearing or damaging it.

The cooked fish was cut into slices to serve it, which proved difficult, and turned out tasty, though by common consent not as tasty as the grilled fish. I will have to try roasting it the next time.

Along with the fish, we had a raisin-honey sauce, a rice porridge, and a green salad, all suitable for Lent. The whole thing was excellent, and I feel a lot more confident addressing fish now.

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