Ah, fish, the great Irish paradox.
We live on an island surrounded by fish but, by and large, we shun them unless they come battered or breadcrumbed. This is because (or so the theory goes) we were forced to eat it on Fridays we don’t really like fish and don’t eat it now we don’t have to. Killarney Restaurateur Paul Treyvaud told me that, of almost 100 covers on Good Friday this year, he only sold a dozen fish main courses. We have some of the best fishing grounds in the world but our fishing fleets are depleted and it’s harder than ever to earn a living as a fisherman. Bily Joel’s poignant ‘Downeaster Alexa’ might as well have been written for Burtonport or Duncannon as for New England’s Outer Lands. Other nations, however, do recognize the excellence of the fish that abound in Irish waters and will joyfully take the cream of the catch. Dublin, our capital, a city on a bay, doesn’t have a fish restaurant worth the name. I could go on.
The most frequent truism you hear about fish is that we love to eat it but we don’t like to cook it. Fish is commonly perceived as fiddly and difficult. Smelly too, in its raw state. Hence, we will eat bass, sea bream, salmon, lemon sole etc in restaurants, as long as it comes to table filleted but we won’t buy it from a fishmonger and cook it at home. These are of course ‘truisms that aren’t necessarily true’.
Martin Shanahan’s new book, a companion to his two successful TV series, aims to change this culinary aversion. Fish, he says, is “nature’s fast food”. You can cook a piece of fish as fast as you can cook a sausage and if you can cook a sausage, you can cook fish, that’s his proposition and the recipes in the book go a long way to proving it. Martin, for those who don’t live in Ireland, is the proprietor of Fishy Fishy in Kinsale, Co Cork, a successful enterprise now in its Mark III version that majors on giving diners fresh fish without the fear factor, skinless, boneless and wholly enjoyable. If you haven’t eaten there, that’s your misfortune, you really should make the effort. Martin is a crusader on behalf of the less popular species – ray, gurnard and haddock to mention but three.
The recipes are tasty but, by and large, uncomplicated. Plain but not too plain, with a fair bit of fusion and ethnic-influence. From fisherman’s pie to salmon with hollandaise sauce; squid with chorizo to potato, leek and mussel soup; avocado with prawns to Thai-style pollock fishcakes, there’s nothing here that the modest home cook couldn’t manage with ease and that’s the great strength of this book. No other fish cookbook I’ve seen demystifies so efficiently. Buy this book and your most difficult challenge will be finding a decent fishmonger.
Martin’s Fishy Fishy Cookbook is published by Estragon Press, John and Sally McKenna’s imprimatur and although soft-covered and plainly produced it doesn’t have that low-budget feel that many publishers seem to think de rigueur for non- ‘A List’ Irish authors. Typesetting and layout have come on in leaps and bounds since Estragon’s early ventures. The book gains considerably from the sensitive photography of Kevin O’Farrell too.
Fish has undeniably lagged behind meat in its appeal to cookbook writers. Had we had Martin’s book twenty-odd years ago it might have had the equivalent impact of, say, Alistair Little’s ‘Keep it Simple’ which for me was a signpost on the road to Damascus. But, better late than never, as they say. Martin’s Fishy Fishy Cookbook deserves a wide audience and the news that, at time of writing, it has climbed to 9th place in the Irish Best Seller List is heartening indeed. Hopefully, further onwards and upwards.
Martin’s Fishy Fishy Cookbook is published by Estragon Press, price €20
Footnote: The ‘big one’, the Fish Cookbook for the Really Keen Cook is still out there. Maybe some chef will take up the challenge and write the blockbuster that will do for fish what Dennis Cotter’s ‘Paradiso’ series did to enhance the status of vegetables.