First Fry Your Witch

Observatory

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Once there was a chain of wet fish shops across Britain called Macfisheries, before supermarkets came along and ruined the pleasure of buying fresh food for all of us. They stocked live fish too, and my mother would often come home with eels wriggling in a shopping bag for my father’s supper. They published this book, which I found in a local junk-shop, and there’s a recipe for each day of the year in it, including the rather alarming ‘Haddock Surprise’ – the surprise part seems to involve aspic jelly and pastry, and ‘Fried Witch’.

The recipe for the latter is no help at all, as it says, ‘Take two witches and fry them.’ Now clearly they’re some kind of fish, but what? Similarly there’s mention of ‘Yarmacs’, ‘Smelts’, ‘Gurnet’, ‘Megrim’ and ‘Ling’ – what are these? Did we fish them all out or do they have different names now? What’s particularly amusing to the modern ear is that all of the dishes sound so unappealing; ‘Devilled Bloaters’, ‘Beer Boiled Halibut’, ‘Spatchcocked Eels’, ‘Duck Hash’, ‘Fish For Invalids’, ‘Cod Head Soup’, ‘Flemish Conger’ and ‘Haddock Jelly’. There are mysterious game varieties too – ‘Capercailzie’, ‘Hazels’ (which I think were a type of hen) and ‘Ptarmigan’.

There seems to be a peculiar obsession with the idea that fish goes well with bananas, as the fruit turn up fried and sliced all over hake and turbot. There’s also the odd-sounding ‘Haddock and Sausages’. But what amazes is the sheer range of fish available – hundreds of different varieties. How different from the miserable world that Tesco dumped us with. It’s alright for hateful old Lady Porter – she slipped off to live in Israel with her stolen loot, leaving behind her father’s ghastly legacy of bad food.

The book is hilarious, plainly written but very keen on things like serving fried fish on a folded white napkin. And there’s a great section on how to treat your servants. With care and kindness, apparently.There’s even a section on postal deliveries that takes you back to a time when there were eight posts a day. Sometimes living in the future doesn’t seem better at all.

12 comments on “First Fry Your Witch”

  1. Kompani101 says:

    Following on from your lovely article I ‘Googled’ Mac Fisheries, as I too have recollections of mother arriving home with fresh fish for tea, and arrived at this interesting web site; http://www.macfisheries.co.uk/page20.htm
    I have no idea what the exotic sounding ‘Witches’ are in relation to the world of fish but would love to know.

  2. Ken Murray says:

    Ling is what have you have been getting for years as a replacement for cod at your local chippie for years! Still it sounds more appetising than the usual replacement here in NZ which is Lemon Shark. Capercallies would be recognisable to most people in Scotland as a small Grouse like game bird.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    In the South Fried Witch is deep fried smelts, Ptarmigan is a rather nice looking mid-sized bird, and spatchcocked means the backbone has been removed. After that I’ve got nothing.

  4. snowy says:

    A ‘Witch’ is more commonly called a Torbay Sole.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    The ptarmigan is an arctic bird that nests on the ground, does not migrate, and changes to white colour in winter. Those who remember Pogo will remember “They was p-tarmigan and they was p-tough.”

  6. Ford says:

    Any mention of Snook? Ling is of the Cod family! I think I caught one once; I was supposed to be Mackerel fishing! There are a lot of varieties of fish landed in this country; but, much of it gets shipped to the continent (Hake to Spain). The fish thing is frustrating. We’re encouraged to eat more; but, can you find any? The supermarkets offer mingey little portions, that cost an arm, and a leg! The TV chefs cook amazing dishes, with whale sized slabs of “exotic” fish; which you can get from your local fishmonger! Yeah! Right! I live 5 mins walk from the sea; but, I can only think of one fishmonger on the area; and, I’m not sure that it opens everyday!

  7. Sarah says:

    ‘Ptarmigan’ will only ever mean the slightly off-beat Penguin section in old bookstores to me – not terribly digestible…

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Snook is a not uncommon family name in Newfoundland, but I don’t think that’s what was referred to. Ling is always ‘ling cod’ here. There is a fishmonger in the new outdoor mall down the road. (a purpose built high street?) I’ve only been in once and I don’t trust a fish market that smells fishy, if you know what I mean. There’s a fisherman’s wharf not far away and that’s a good place to buy locally caught fish, although it’s not terribly cheap there either. There are a dozen or so tourist type shops at the head of the wharf and they all have signs on their doors “No bags of fish, they leak!” If anyone is watching Once Upon a Time this little town, Steveston, is the real Storybrooke.

  9. Vivienne Cox says:

    Ling was useful to remember when doing The Times crosswords. This was often the answer when the clue was ‘fish’, as those letters appear in lots of words.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Do you not do The Times any more, Vivienne? I assume you mean New York, not London. I can never get more than one answer to a cryptic cross and “fish” would never be a clue in one of those. There is a site on the net that gives samples of cryptic question types to help you get started but it doesn’t seem to be working.
    I have never seen eels for sale, but I wonder if it’s because we don’t have them.

  11. Alan G says:

    Have you lot never heard of Occam’s Razor? Maybe the witch referred to is just a witch?

  12. glasgow1975 says:

    My mum once served me some lovely tinned peaches for pudding, unfortunately the tv was showing a nature programme about eels . . .I still can’t eat tinned peaches

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