In the 1970s we can’t afford to do fish. Cod, haddock and plaice are much too expensive, so we learn about it from books. Coming from the Midlands, fish and chips on a Friday night is the limit of my fish knowledge. But Trout and almonds are a speciality in the trendy bistros and restaurants of the 1970s.
According to O Level Cookery, there are white fish, oily fish, and crustaceans, fresh and sea water fish.
‘What about jellied eels, miss – where do they fit?’
Ah, the hideous, bony, thick skinned lumps of slimy, jellied things, served in a bowl down Walthamstow High Street. A much hallowed east end delicacy which I spat out in disgust.
‘Eels aren’t fish, Kevin – they’re … eels.’
The boys are expert fishermen, and they spend weekends in the Lee Valley catching fish from rivers and reservoirs.
Most of the fish that my students eat comes in John West tins – pilchards, mackerel, sardines, pink salmon and tuna.
But we have to learn to cook fish from scratch, and the cheapest fish is herring.
They are in for another dissection lesson. A whole tiny, shiny herring sits on the chopping board on my demonstration table. A large pile of herrings, wrapped in newspaper, is waiting quietly in the corner for them to prepare. The girls sniff, dump down their bags and wrinkle their noses, despondently.
The class gather on their stools for the start of the demonstration.
‘We’re going to learn about fish today and this is what the book says.’
I read from Fish Cookery written by the Ministry of Food, and issued to school cookery classes.
‘We are fortunate to be an island race. Our coasts have many fine harbours for ships, and the seas round our shores teem with fish. While many nations with little or no seaboard would give much to have this valuable supply for its larder, we do not always take the trouble to use of it as we might.’
This sounds like a speech by Churchill, who after urging us to fight on the wartime beaches is now persuading us to get on with the business of eating more of the fish which teem around us.
They are not inspired. They hate fish and they’d rather be doing double maths, followed by physics, algebra and geometry.
‘Do you know why we are using herrings today, class?’
They don’t answer. They just glare at me. I read from the book again.
‘Of all the fish, herring gives best value for money. It can be bought fresh, salted, smoked, pickled or canned and there is no end to the variety of dishes that can be made from it.’
So that is why I’ve chosen it for you.’
They don’t care. And to make things worse, everything smells of fish.
‘We’re going to make this fish into soused herrings. But firstly, how can you tell if this fish is fresh?’
I hold the herring up by its tail for the class to inspect. A dribble of blood drops sadly from its mouth. The girls put their hands over their mouths and pretend to be sick, but the boys try their best to please me.
‘You look at its eyes miss, and feel it.’
‘Thanks John – look at its clear, shiny eyes.’
The herring’s eyes are dull and bloodshot. It has had enough.
‘And what about its gills?’
I thrust the herring towards them and pull open the flap that covers the rows of red fronds.
‘These should be bright and shiny and its body firm. Listen because you’ll need this for the exam.’
They are grumbling at my lesson plans, and the exam is the only reason for dragging us through this smelly, fishy lesson. It would be much easier to cook jam tarts.
‘Now look at its mouth.’ I pull open the bottom jaw, opening up a vast chasm which could swallow a jellied eel whole.
‘Ugh, miss – why don’t you chop its head off? I’m telling yer, I ain’t doing that.’ Jackie folds her arms and looks like the teachers in our strike meetings. Other girls join her in this defiant pose.
The boys shuffle on their stools, trying not to look enthusiastic at the chance of splaying out some blood and guts and using our sharp filleting knives.
I know that deep down, they all rather like these barmy lessons. While their friends have sat in a gentle, boring maths class, they come back with tales of guts and ghastliness. ‘You’ll never guess what we did today. We saw inside a herring in COOKERY!’
‘Look at this lovely fish – silvery scales and perky fins on the top and bottom.’
I scrape off some scales which glue themselves to the formica work surface.
Then swiftly I slit open the belly from its head to its anus, and the guts, blood vessels and liver spill out onto the chopping board.
‘Here is the roe – mine is a female with eggs, but you won’t know if your fish is male or female until you open it.’
The boys smirk – they like to talk of sex and food.
‘And this is the swim bladder which keeps it afloat.’
I take out a long silvery sac and squeeze the bubble of air backwards and forwards. The boys peer onto the saucer as it passes round the group. This is interesting.
Quickly I chop off the head, clip the fins and press the herring flesh flat on the board to remove the backbone. Then wash it under with tap water to remove blood and entrails.
‘Now we are going to souse it.’
‘Scouse it miss?’
My Midland accent sounds Liverpudlian to them.
No, souse it Kevin.’
‘Have you ever met the Beatles, miss?’ Kevin is trying to jolly me along and find out more about my private life.
‘Actually, Kevin, I saw them live in Hammersmith, and everyone screamed and climbed over their seats to get to the stage. Except for me.’
They stare in amazed silence. The Beatles are rather old hat, but I have seen them perform. My status has increased from cookery teacher to mildly interesting human being.
‘Let’s get on with things or we will never finish gutting and boning these herrings.’
I can feel that they don’t care. Why can’t we just write about it like they do in other lessons? Why do we always have to DO things?
I chop some onion and place it inside the fish, then roll it up and push the tail through the flesh so it sticks up like a fan. I place the fish gently into the Pyrex dish with some peppercorns and vinegar, then cover it with foil. And into the oven to cook until soft.
‘Bring me your roe and we can fry it for lunch, if you like.’
The class disperses to carry out their task and after a series of ‘yuk’ and ‘this is disgusting’, the fish are entombed in foil and a vinegary, fishy smell wafts from the ovens. My desk has two plates of beige, slimy roe, and the bin is full of fish heads, guts and backbones.
They wash and clear up and gather their bags. The herrings are sadly sousing in the ovens and I fear that no-one will return to collect them at home time.
Next week we’ll use tinned salmon and make fish cakes.