Last week’s intensive food writing experience was intense in many ways, not least meteorologically – Adelaide put on its finest demonstration of stinking hot through to torrential rains and steam bath humidity. The first was to be expected in February but not the last two. Aside from the weather, I enjoyed getting to know the fourteen or so other students who’ve embarked on this food writing journey with me. I must admit to a temporary melt-down when I called myself all kinds of stupid for willingly setting foot on a university campus again, with all the concomitant assignments, deadlines, demands and bloody work it involves. However after a good sleep, I feel, if not supremely confident, hopeful of survival.
It occurred to me during the week that if I’m going to write with any credibility about food, I should start to be more adventurous with my dining. I’ve been somewhat of a fishaphobe for a long time, which I think stemmed from my first pregnancy when, in the throes of almost terminal morning sickness, just coming within sniffing distance of a fish shop brought on the dry heaves. Hormonally induced visions of reptilian inhabitants of the deep haunted me night and day.
Ever since I’ve tended to recoil from anything finned or scaled. But I can’t keep avoiding fish forever. They constitute a significant part of gastronomic culture, both domestically and in the restaurant scene, plus their health benefits have been rammed down our throats relentlessly for years.
Food writing – limbering up exercises
Food writing, by definition, is about translating sensory experience into words. Sensory experience, by definition, is about trying, tasting, savouring and experimenting (much of which we did last week). As Elizabeth David once said, “if a food writer doesn’t exercise his or her critical abilities to a high degree and with a backing of informed experience, he or she is not doing his or her job“. As well as deftly avoiding any gender bias, her words capture the principle well.
My critical abilities, I decided, are in dire need of exercise (as am I probably, but that’s another story). Informed experience isn’t looking at every fish dish that comes my way and saying “yuck”.
So, cut to Friday night and dinner in an Italian restaurant in Adelaide. We have the choice of a special Valentine’s Day degustation menu, or a la carte. On scanning the degustation offerings, my eyes are drawn to the second one, which is swordfish carpaccio. Normally something I’d avoid like the plague. But it’s time to put faint heartedness behind me and seize the fish by the gills. I know it’s raw, but it’s only one small dish. How bad can it be?
When it lands in front of me, it doesn’t look promising. Greyish white ribbons are suspended in yellow oil. Nestled among them are pale triangles of orange and two or three slivers of chili. Bordering the field of yellow is a thicket of rocket, my least favourite green. (NB: below is not the dish I had although similar … different greens and no capers)
The whole is uninspiring, but I plunge in. Impaling a piece of the whitish matter on my fork isn’t hard. Nor is bringing it to my mouth. Harder is coming to terms with the oily, slightly gelatinous texture. It’s the chewing though that does me in. Mastication releases the sharp unmistakeable pungency of FISH. Oily, slimy, scaly, fishy hideousness of the pregnancy phobia days fills my head. Saliva fills my mouth, and not the kind that comes before saying “yum”. Disgusting as this sounds, and is, I have to take it out, half chewed and return it to the plate. It sits there, a fibrous lump, looking like a bit of old chewy. So I slip it under a frond of rocket and hope no-one will notice.
Having never tried this dish before, I am clueless as to whether this is a classic presentation or not. I later find out it is. Although it would have benefited hugely from a sliver or two of crusty bread, some capers and maybe a lemon wedge or two, but that’s just me.
The classic dish
If I haven’t put you off and you’d like to try it, I found a recipe on GoodFood.com in which the fish is marinated in oil and lemon and seasoned with rosemary, thyme and hot red pepper flakes. Some recipes recommend serving with toasted crusty bread, which would be good for soaking up the oil (and getting rid of the taste of fish).
Where I went wrong
Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with swordfish. The fish has a high oil content, and although described as “meaty“, it’s strongly fish flavoured, which for some may be a good thing, but not for me. And who knows, swordfish grilled, poached or fried in batter with chips might have been really good.
But those treats must wait for another day. My pescatorial experiment came to an ignominious end but I can’t give up. I’ve still got to come to terms with offal.
by Anne Green