Although in French the word ‘maigre’ means thin or skinny in terms of it’s English usage it was used to describe non meat eating days (classically Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in pre Reformation England). Consumption of fish was encouraged by the Christian church in part out of necessity but also for the good of the soul. Meat was a scarce and valuable commodity. By the time Lent arrived most animals reared for meat would have been slaughtered leaving only those beasts required for breeding. Therefore, a period of abstinence from flesh was warranted until stocks could be replenished. More importantly, fasting was seen as a way of doing penance for our sins by removing the pleasure of meat eating and to reduce the faithfuls carnal passions. Living as they do in water fish were seen as sharing some of its divine virtues. Water is pure and could wash away the sins of the world as it did in Noah’s flood. Therefore, fish too had a level of sanctity according to the church. So during periods of fasting, such as Lent or non-flesh eating days particularly in the mediaeval era, fish was king.
The problem was keeping it fresh and so fish like cod, herring and mackerel would be salted or pickled in order to preserve it. Salted fish known as stockfish would become the scourge of the fasting table particularly if you were poor (fresh fish was sold at a premium and therefore more of a luxury item than stockfish). Hard as a board it required extensive preparation in order to render it edible and was often served with spices in order to make it is more palatable. By Elizabeth I’s reign consumption of preserved and fresh water fish was in decline, a knock on affect of the ousting of the Catholic church during her father’s time. This posed a problem for the government who wanted a large fishing fleet to help bolster the navy against a Spanish attack. Therefore, the traditional fish days of the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were reintroduced. The concept of fish days would be abolished under Oliver Cromwell less than a century later and fish would never regain this level of prominence in the British diet.
That said you do still find salt cod recipes in post Commonwealth cookbooks like this one by Dr William Kitchiner from The Cook’s Oracle (originally published in 1817 although my particular copy dates from 1840). Now here I must make a confession. I had planned to make this pie with salt cod but completely forgot to soak it for 48 hours beforehand. In it’s place I’ve used smoked haddock. If you were going to salt cod you would need slightly less (say 300g) than stated in the recipe below. I’ve made a few tweaks to Kitchiner’s original ‘receipt’ (such as the addition of cornichons and dill – the parsley and lemon zest were included in his recipe for the forcemeat stuffing he suggests using to line the base of the pie) and topped my version with cheesy breadcrumbs rather than pastry. The end result is like a potato and fish gratin rather than a classic fish pie but I actually prefer the less soupy consistency.
Ingredients for 4 people
- 400g undyed smoked haddock, skin on
- 1 large potato weighing 300-350g
- Butter for greasing
- 250ml single cream
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
- Finely grated zest of half a small lemon
- 2 generous tsp wholegrain or dijon mustard
- 1 tsp mushroom ketchup or Worcestershire sauce
- White pepper to season
- 2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 4 cornichons or gherkins, chopped
- 100g fresh white breadcrumbs
- 40g finely grated strong Cheddar cheese
- Preheat the oven to 180℃.
- Place the haddock in a large shallow pan and cover with water. Bring to the boil then as soon as the water reaches boiling point turn off the heat. Leave the fish to gently poach for at least 20 minutes (longer won’t hurt as the heat is off so it shouldn’t over cook).
- Place the potato in a separate pan of water and bring it to the boil. Boil for 10 minutes then drain and allow to cool. Grease a reasonably deep gratin dish with butter (I use a vintage enamel wear dish 19 x 26 cm with a capacity of around 1 litre).
- Mix the cream with the herbs, zest, mustard and mushroom ketchup (or Worcestershire sauce). Season with white pepper plus salt if you think you’ll need it but there is quite a bit in the fish and ketchup.
- When the fish is cool enough to handle, gently flake the flesh being careful to discard the skin and any bones you find. Peel the potato (the skin should more or less slip off) then finely slice using a mandolin. Mix the breadcrumbs and cheese together.
- Place a layer of potato at the bottom of the dish. Scatter with a third of the fish, onions and cornichons before topping with one of the sliced, hard boiled eggs. Then pour over a third of the cream mixture. Repeat the layers of potato, fish etc and cream two more times. Rather then finishing with egg on the final layer scatter over the breadcrumbs and cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes (this will stop the breadcrumbs from getting too brown before the potato is fully cooked). Remove the foil and bake uncovered for a further 30 minutes until bubbling and golden brown. If you can insert a knife smoothly then the pie is cooked. Serve piping hot with a green vegetable or two on the side.