Nose to tail eating, for fish.

Text: Orlando Addis Photos: Orlando Addis, Craig Grozier, Ben Reade, Sashana Souza Zanella

At St John’s restaurant in London, Fergus Henderson did a wonderful thing. It was no mean feat to persuade the restaurant world of the 90s that using the whole, uncut and uncensored animal was ok. It was, and is still, much easier to slap a steak on a grill, cover it with butter. You can easily charge a lot of money for it too. That was then, this is now. Nowadays restaurants have got a lot better at using all those tough and fatty cuts and bits of offal that need a bit more love and attention, and the public has got a lot better at eating them. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re at least moving in the right direction. Less waste, more flavour. Grand. But what about fish? Most fish in Scotland is sold as fillets. Of course it is. That’s the bit we eat. Aye, but just as a good cook would never let some beef shins or chicken bones go to waste, why aren’t we thinking about fish in the same way? What about the bones, the head, the offal? What happens to that? It seems a shame to waste it. Our national dish is the very definition of thrift after all. And where the English go, the Scottish always manage to go that little bit further, normally that little bit too far, until someone gets hurt, and then just a bit further still. So, with that in mind, here is a Scottish guide to nose to tail eating, for fish.

remove fins & gills, split head, brine, hang to drip dry, roast, baste abundantly

remove fins & gills, split head, brine, hang to drip dry, roast, baste abundantly

Cod head night at EFS with  Craig Grozier

Cod head night at EFS with Craig Grozier

The Head

The easiest thing to do with the head and the rest of the carcass is to make stock out of it. And that, most of the time, is what we do. But, Scotland being Scotland, we have a recipe just for cod heads. Actually we have several. In fact you can have it with a white sauce, a brown sauce, boiled, broiled, roasted or garnished with fried oysters and pickled samphire (amongst other things). For the really extreme eaters among you, ‘klossed heads’ are fish heads, probably those removed from cod or ling to be salted and dried, pressed between two stones and left there to ferment before being roasted and served with butter and potatoes. For now, however, we will concentrate on a fairly well known Scots dish (if only for the name) Crappit Heids, also known as ‘krappin’ on the Shetland Isles. Here is F.M.McNeill’s recipe from the Isle of Lewis:

“Take half a dozen haddock heads and livers. Chop the liver, which must be perfectly fresh, mix them with an equal quantity of raw oatmeal, add pepper and salt, and bind with milk. Stuff the heads with this mixture, and boil them with the fish. The liquor makes good stock for fish soup. A similar stuffing is made with cods’ livers, but the body, not the head, is stuffed, through the gullet.”(1)

The Liver

Cod liver has long been known to be very good for you, however bad the oil tasted as a child. As such, there exist a range of different recipes using fish livers across Scotland. In fact, you could fill a page just with those from Shetland. The livers from the cod family can be mixed with oatmeal, beremeal and water to make either ‘cropadeu’(2), by steaming or boiling the mixture in muslin, or ‘krus’ by forming the mix into bannocks and baking them(3). Such bannocks are also called sangster(4) or kroll(5) when made with saithe livers and beremeal.

In A Caledonian Feast, Annette Hope suggests koogs for which take “a potato, scooped out, filled with fish-livers, covered with strips of dough, and baked in the ashes on the hearth.”(6). While in North Atlantic Seafood, Alan Davidson gives us a recipe for ‘stap’: “poach the haddock together with the livers [the livers should come to have the weight of the fish meat], picked over and rid of any worms. Flake the cooked fish and mash it up with the livers. Sprinkle with salt and white pepper. “(7). Meg Dod’s also provides an interesting recipe for a sauce made from fish livers: “Melt some butter in water and vinegar; add the liver boiled and chopped, and thicken with the yolk of an egg and flour. Mustard, a tea-spoonful of catsup or walnut-pickle, is a cheap pungent addition to the above.”(8).

The sounds

In her 1830 cookbook, The Practice of Cookery, Mrs Dalgairns provides us with not just one, but three ways of cooking fish sounds, which is the fish’s air-bladder. Either roasted with breadcrumbs and oysters, grilled with a sauce made from “a table-spoonful of catsup, half a one of soy, and a little cayenne, into melted butter”(9), and lastly fricasseed and finished with lemon pickle.

smoking roe here at EFS

smoking roe here at EFS

The Roe

Again the wonderful Meg Dods comes suggests a sauce made from mackerel roe: ““Boil two or three soft roes; take away the filaments that hang about them, and bruise them with the yolk of an egg. Stir this into a little thin parsley, or fennel and butter, and add a little vinegar, or walnut-pickle, with pepper and salt.”(10). Or else you could make ‘slot’ by mixing cod livers with flour, shaping the dough into balls, poaching it, and then frying slices of it in butter or dripping(11). A less involved recipe would be ‘roe cakes’ in which the boiled roe is mixed with egg, flour, milk, baking powder and seasoned to make savoury pancakes(12).


The Spine

In Catalonia, anchovy spines are deep fried to make a deliciously simple snack, In Japan garfish spines are roasted to be dipped in soy sauce. And in Scotland we have salmon, and Mackarel offering their backbones. Meg Dods suggests that the spine of a salmon, which has been removed in order to smoke the fish, should be left rough and makes for “quite an epicure’s breakfast morsel”(13). Season the bone with salt and plenty of pepper (she suggests the dish as a devil, as in devilled kidneys) grill it and butter it. On a personal note, I’ve certainly given thought to taking a leaf out of the Catalans’ book and deep frying a whole salmon spine. Watch this space.

The stomach

Fish haggis. Yes. It exists! Known as ‘hakka muggie’, this recipe comes from the fantastic Cookery for Northern Wives by Margaret Stout: “Fill up with liver, oatmeal and seasoning alternatively, about half a tablespoon at a time until half to two-thirds full. [...] Plunge into boiling salted water and boil gently 25-30 minutes [...] serve hot with potatoes.”(14).

For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, I heartily recommend getting a hold of Meg Dods’ The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (facsimiles for several editions are available online), it’s worth a read just for the author’s personality. Margaret Stout’s Cookery for Northern Wives is an incredible book with some truly weird and wonderful Shetlandic dishes. F.M.McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen remains a classic, while A Caledonian Feast by Annette Hope is a brilliantly succinct look at the history of the Scottish kitchen and its natural larder.

Particularly challenging fish stomach served in Vietnam. 

Particularly challenging fish stomach served in Vietnam. 

Moreno Cedroni, taster served in the kitchen of La Madonnina del Pescatore** 2011. Veal shin (60°C 18 hours) wrapped in lardo, with snails and Monkfish belly tripe and lentil soup.

Moreno Cedroni, taster served in the kitchen of La Madonnina del Pescatore** 2011. Veal shin (60°C 18 hours) wrapped in lardo, with snails and Monkfish belly tripe and lentil soup.

1. F.M.McNeill, (1929) The Scots Kitchen (Reprint. Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1993) p.108

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5.  Margaret Stout, Cookery for Northern Wives (Lerwick: T. & J. Manson, 1925) p. 8

6.  Annette Hope, A Caledonian Feast, 2nd ed. (London: Grafton Books, 1989) p. 88

7.  Alan Davidson, North Atlantic Seafood (New York: The Viking Press, 1980) p. 444

8.  Margaret Dods, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, 3rd ed.(Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1928) p. 250

9.  Mrs Dalgairns, The Practice of Cookery, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1830) pp. 47-48

10.  Dods, p. 250

11.  Stout, pp. 12-13

12.  Ibid. p. 14

13.  Margaret Dods, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, 11th ed.(Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962) p. 165

14.  Stout, pp. 7-8