Heavenly Herring and Splendid Skate
The Pathetic Ignorance Regarding Canadian Seafood Cuisine
Before joining the government icebreaker d’Iberville to voyage up to the high arctic in 1956, I remember standing on a dockside in the Iles de Madeleine, in 1956, looking down to where local fishermen had hauled in a massive net full of fine herring, all in super condition and fat with succulent roe. I asked one of the fellows how much he wanted for half-a-dozen, as fresh herring fried in butter can rival even brook trout for flavour. He asked me what I wanted them for and I said to eat of course. He laughed and called down to his mates in French that here was a man who actually ate herrings. They all went into fits of merriment at the very idea and started throwing herrings high into the air to rain down beside me onto the dock. I gathered up as many as I could carry and went back along the wharf to the hydrographic ship I was temporarily serving on, the ex-minesweeper, CGS Kapuskasing, for an unexpected feast.
All those island fishermen did with the herring they caught was use it, or sell it, for lobster bait. Or fertilizer for farmers. A lot of it went over to Portugal and Spain for that same purpose—some of it carried there by my old ship the MV Theron.
One morning, before heading up to the arctic again in 1957, while running lines of soundings off the coast of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, a thick fog came down around us. As the shore disappeared from view we had to stop work. As we lay there, some miles offshore in the gentle swell, the fog became denser until visibility was barely a hundred feet. My crew said such a fog can last all day. One of them, who lived and fished locally, suggested we go into nearby Goldboro harbour as he had an aunt there who would give us coffee and scones. That sounds good, I replied but how will we get there in this fog. No trouble said the seaman taking over the wheel from the coxun. And off he took us at half-speed. As we neared the shore he stopped the engine every few minutes and listened to the surf around the reefs. Then off he would go for another few minutes. Suddenly, I was startled as a ghostly shape loomed up in front of our launch and the engine went full astern. The frightening obstacle was the end of the wharf in Goldboro harbour.
After having our coffee with the aunt the fog had cleared somewhat. On the wharf a dozen fishermen were standing around looking at a massive skate someone had landed. It was enormous and enough to feed fifty Friday-night customers at any London fish-and-chip shop. All the fishermen on the wharf that morning agreed it was the biggest skate they’d ever seen. Then abruptly, two men put their boat hooks under it and heaved it into the water. It went down into the deeps. Why did you do that, I asked? It’s just a trash fish, they said, no use to anyone. When I told them what a valuable an eating fish it was they looked at me as if I was a mad cannibalistic alien. At least we could have measured it for the record book. Fortunately, for skate lovers like myself, but not for the skate population in general, in the last three years or so fresh skate wings, the main and edible part of the fish, have appeared for sale on the fish counters of many supermarkets.
A few years earlier, ever since going to Iraq in 1947, I had been an enthusiast for the fish my crew of the El Ghar so often caught in the salt water at the edge of the outer estuary. I also wondered at how the local small fishing boats seemed to be so few in number. Whether the fish samples I passed around to the residents of and visitors to Fao, or my fishy culinary dissertations in the club’s bar had any triggering effect, I don’t know. But interestingly, the Iraq Government and Port of Basra announced that an experimental program was to take place to find out if a commercial fishery was viable at the head of the gulf. To this end a Belgian trawler was chartered to come out from Europe.
When the trawler arrived with its jolly Belgian skipper and his plump wife, their vessel was renamed the Zubaidy, after the fine fish, a pomfret, of that name. Such upright flat fish, which range from very small to quite massive, I have recently seen on Canadian fish counters. They are often called butter fish owing to their having a delicate buttery taste. The Arabic word for butter is zibid—hence their Iraqi name.
So when the Zubaidy sailed off into the blue waters at the head of the Persian Gulf our small band of residents in the Fao compound were all agog to see what their first trip to sea would bring. We were delighted when old Belgy came back from his first trip and showed us some nice skate or ray he had taken. We couldn’t have any, though, as all his first catch was required for study in assessing the potential for a fishery. However his cheerful little wife made wonderful boullabaisse fish soup from oddments of other fish species. Then orders were given to the skipper that any skate taken was to be thrown back into the sea. It was considered unclean by Islamic teachings. Well, everyone knows that the unprepossessing body parts of a skate or ray are inedible. But the wings are very good eating and considered upper class in the fish hierarchy even though British trawlermen, because of its suggestive undersides, have a fanciful and indelicate colloquial name for that particular fish. So ever after the Belgian skipper had to be very circumspect in keeping a few hidden away to give out to his new-found fish loving friends in Fao. This experiment lasted about three months and then the trawler’s contract was up and they sailed back to the North Sea.
Sometimes while running our echo-sounding lines off Canada's Atlantic shoreline with the motor-launch, around noon, my crew would ask me if I’d like a lobster for lunch. Then they would make over to some lobster pots, pull them up and take out the lobsters. The first time this happened I was aghast. Stealing lobsters from someone else’s traps was like cattle rustling in the old wild west. We could be lynched. But this was done with a difference. After taking out the lobsters a couple of dollar bills were stuck on the bait spike, fresh bait was put on top and the trap lowered back into the water. The trap owner, I was assured, would be more than pleased with the two dollars—especially if other lobsters attracted by the new bait were in the trap. They showed me how the lobsters enter the baited part of the trap and then always pass through to the other half of the trap called the bedroom. They also demonstrated how to gently stroke a lobster’s back so it would swoon in ecstasy and fall into a trance as if hypnotized. I in turn showed them that the best embellishment for any kind of shellfish was a simple mixture of pepper and salt in a saucer of malt vinegar, not the melted butter so commonly used in Canada.
There is an amazing difference in different regions and cultures of opinion about what fishes are good and desirable and which are trash. Years ago, in southern Nova Scotia, some coastal townspeople complained about all the herring being dumped at the local land disposal site which caused a terrible smell that drifted over their homes. Those herrings had been caught by the hundreds of thousands so that the females could be stripped of their egg-roe for the lucrative Japanese market. The remainder of the female fish-bodies together with all the sadly untouched perfect male herrings were dumped in the garbage tip. Ironically, in Europe, the soft male roe or milt is more highly prized than the female egg-roe and the minor amounts of it imported into North America in small tins for sale in North America are very expensive.
I wrote a letter about this terrible Nova Scotian waste of a valuable resource to the federal government fisheries minister and received a fatuous reply. Hardly surprising considering from whom it came. Anyway, I believe that particular case of indiscriminate dumping of the fish on land was mostly stopped. But that remedial action was not very remedial. From then on the fishermen just dumped all the unwanted dead herring (about 95 per cent of their original total catch) back into the sea as they went out to sea on their way to haul in many more tons destined to again be largely wasted. Of course, now we all cry crocodile tears for these poor misguided and wasteful dunderheads of the sea at the tricks cruel nature has played on them by depleting the fish stocks. With the help of the seals, that is. Well, if you’re soft, greedy and stupid you have to blame something or other for your idiocy. But I’ve never been able to fathom out how, many hundreds of years ago, when there was no commercial seal hunting taking place and seals must have been enormously prolific, why the ocean then could still manage to teem with cod and other valuable fish.
Any day now I expect to read headlines reporting an inexplicable disappearance of the herring stocks off the east coast.
Just a couple of years ago I was often blessed by finding frozen herrings, with soft roe, fairly well intact in fish in overall pretty good shape, in what was then our local Loeb grocery store, here in Ottawa. Reasonably priced, about two out of a package of three would be in good enough shape to make a decent breakfast. Over the months they not only appeared in the freezer department much less frequently but when they did sporadically appear they were usually mangled and squashed as if run over by a truck. They got worse and worse in condition until they were unfit for any type of culinary rescue. Then Loeb changed their name to Metro and even that useless supply became zero. Not even the most mangled specimens of wanton wastage was available. Not even for cat owners or perhaps avid gardeners’ fertilizing purposes.
It's not just good enough, Metro people. Give us sophisticated herring lovers a break. Get your fish suppliers to provide you, and subsequently us, with at least a modicum of decently cared for, dignified, frozen ripe herrings that we can enjoy, despite being a thousand miles from the ocean potion.
So, other more luckier fish-loving patrons, if ever you get the choice of cooking some fresh herring roe jump at it. Pick the soft milt from the male fish, rather than the egg roe from the females. Both are excellent but the soft roe has a definite edge in scrumptiousness.
Dry them, then fry them gently in butter, just as they are or lightly dredged in wholewheat flour. Assemble them atop hot buttered toast, sprinkle with pepper and salt and malt vinegar, then indulge yourself in this heavenly sea food.