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Don't buy the Penguin edition of this wonderful but challenging book.
on 7 August 2012
Let me make this clear - those three stars apply to the Penguin edition in particular. This is a four or five star book let down by a really substandard bit of printing which makes it a misery rather than a pleasure to read. For this is a bible-fat encyclopaedia of a book, and the Penguin edition really isn't up to the job; neither legible enough nor robust enough for the kind of use this book will get. I regret not going for a second-hand hardback instead; at nearly 600 pages, you want decent sized type and a solid binding which will lie flat on the table. I have since traded in my Penguin edition.
Though this is a treasurehouse of things to do with fish, it is a slightly flawed masterpiece. It is wittily written, packed with anecdote and background, and will appeal best to the kind of cook who wants to know the theory and experience which lie behind the recipe. Some of the information is rattled through at a fair pace with little allowance made for the novice; in fact this is, all in all, a book for the dedicated and knowledgeable cook. There are no pictures and the recipes assume a certain level of competence - an introductory chapter does take you through the whole business of court-bouillons, beurre manie and clarified butter, as well as a selection of essential sauces. In places some diagrams would be really helpful, and today we would have them, but this is 1973 and it is assumed we can manage without them
The arrangement is a little confusing. Fish are listed alphabetically, and recipes, discussion and good advice for each dish assembled under major headings for the most important fish. But some fish fall naturally into groups, so sole, dab and plaice share a chapter. Recipes for saltfish come in a chapter headed "Cod, ling, coley, pollock, pollack etc"; quite a bunch. Cross-references are inserted at the end of major chapters, so at the end of the chapter on crabs, and before the one on eels, there are cross-references not only to dabs, but to crawfish, croakers and drums (!), cuttlefish ("see squid"), dab, dolphinfish, dorado and dublin bay prawns. Some of the more obscure fish (including croakers and drums but also the widely-available skate and sprats) are then dealt with in a separate alphabetical sequence under "A few words about other fish and crustacea". There is then a further chapter on dishes featuring many fish, such as bouillabaise, and another on "Caviare and other hard roes", though soft roes are dealt with under "Herring".
You can find the information you want, and there is a proper index, but it is all a little eccentric. Grigson is confident she has included everything; at one point she says "If you see something you've never heard of at the fishmonger, buy then look it up in here when you get home" - but perhaps she has got carried away in the drive for comprehensiveness. There is practically no mention of seasonality; something quite important with a lot of fish - mackerel, for example; and surprisingly little distinction made between freshly caught British coastal fish and those imported frozen from other parts of the world. Admittedly it is annoying when books assume that every reader can just nip down to the quay and wait for the boat to come in, but today one would expect some acknowledgement of sustainability and air miles.
This is probably the only book on fish the serious cook will ever need. It deals with fish many of us will never see in our local fishmonger (very useful if you move to the continent though . . .). The range of recipes is awesome, and I doubt if anyone would ever use more than a fraction of them.If you want something less erudite and more accessible, go for something like the Rick Stein ones. I shall persevere with this, and relish my education.