A pretty kettle of fish

Rachel Walker recalls learning the essentials of poaching whole fish the hard way, in a vintage PG Wodehouse-style tale of cooks, castles and kettles.

If you’ve ever wondered whoever actually needs a fish kettle these days, here’s a cautionary tale. I was 19 years old and working as an agency chef. My job had taken me to a remote part of rural Scotland to cook for a week-long reunion of a rather grand old family in their equally grand, old, and thoroughly unmodernised, castle. The basement kitchen was almost 200 feet long: it was sparse and shadowy, and most of the utensils were coated in a thick layer of grease – probably dating back to Queen Victoria’s reign.

Back in the day, there would have been a fleet of staff, but now it was just me. There was a pulley-lift built into a wall at one end of the room, next to which was a servants’ spiral staircase. So I’d lay platters of food on the wobbly lift, tug at the rope until it reached the floor above, and then scuttle up the staircase to greet the meal upstairs and take it through to the dining room.

As each member of the family turned up, the already rather gloomy mood steadily deepened. Clearly, they couldn’t stand each other. That’s the thing about working as a “modern” cook: the “upstairs, downstairs” divide has worn away enough that you don’t have to press an ear to the wall to get a sense of the drama. Instead, people seek solace in the kitchen. They come downstairs for a cup of tea, a slice of cake – and a whinge.

The grandmother couldn’t abide her daughter-in-law and it was all too easy to see why. Unfortunately for me, it was this fearsome tweedy grump, rather than the quietly charming dowager, who had taken it upon herself to manage the menu. So when she disappeared early one morning and came back in the afternoon, holding aloft a giant salmon, I saw what was coming. “We’d like it poached whole,” she barked. “Then served laid flat for a buffet supper.”

I’d learned to cook in the 21st century, but had leafed through mum’s 1980s’ Marks and Spencer cookbooks enough times to be able to conjure up the exact image of what she was after. I knew I’d need a fish kettle, so started searching through the walls of draws and cupboard. There were cast-iron scales, icing syringes, butter paddles, intricate jelly moulds and skillets so heavy that I could barely lift them – but no fish kettle.

Twilight was quickly fading into darkness proper and I was running out of options. Starting to panic, I found the biggest pan I could and filled it with water. It was caked in grease, so I wrapped the salmon in foil to protect it. Then I curled it up, so its head was touching its tail, and placed the Cumberland-sausage-shaped parcel into the water to cook.

I know, I know, it’s a horrible plan in hindsight. But it was one of my first agency jobs and I had never poached a whole fish before. And it’s amazing how the patter of footsteps overhead as the final guests arrived for supper can mar even the sanest person’s judgement.

After letting it bubble away, I carefully lifted the salmon out of the pan. I had, foolishly, envisaged straightening it back out – but, of course, a fish stays in the shape it’s cooked in. What’s more, blush-pink flesh flakes off a well-cooked salmon at the slightest touch. Thankfully the salmon was at least impeccably cooked. But that also meant that no ham-fisted manoeuvre was going to straighten it out.

I flung open the back door and flew out into the damp darkness to find a patch of phone reception to call my mother – once a cook herself. I explained what had happened.

“Do you think that I could use two forks to flake the salmon off the bone, and serve it in a sort of flaky mound?” I asked. Silence. “No,” my mother said. She was right.

In the end, I found a fish slice and used it to lift 5cm-long sections of flesh from the bone. I arranged the lines of flesh flat on a platter, like a palaeontologist trying to recreate its original shape. I lopped off the head and tail and placed them at the top and bottom of the fillets. And then I used lashings of Hollandaise and garnish to cover up each join.

Just passable. Just. But ever since, I have never underestimated the usefulness of a fish kettle.

Lessons learned
1. Curled-up fish do not straighten out once cooked.
2. In the absence of a fish kettle, use a roasting tin (not a circular pan), so the whole fish can lie flat.
3. It’s easier to steam or poach smaller fillets, rather than a whole fish…
4. …but if you want to take on a whole fish, then many fishmongers and even supermarkets with a fish counter, such as Waitrose and Morrisons, are happy to lend a fish kettle for free.
5. An artistically placed garnish can hide a multitude of sins.

All pictures courtesy of Mrs Beeton, God bless her.

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