London — Having lived on both sides of the Atlantic, Alan Davidson has discovered that although fish, and plants as well, are often similar on both sides of this ocean , when cookbooks are written they tend to be for one side or the other. His book changes all that.
Good fish cookbooks have always been hard to find, and those few good ones are often limited to fish of a particular region, like the coastal region of the Carolinas or the shores of Maine and Nova Scotia or California. Sometimes they are written more for the fisherman or angler than for the cook.
Probably the best and a classic, James Beard's fish cookbook covers most fish in the United States. But even this is not really up to date simply because it doesn't have the much-needed recipes for some of the underutilized and less familiar kinds of seafood now available.
Another lack in many cookbooks is clarification of the names of fish, which are often called one name in one area, a different one a few hundred miles west. Mr. Davidson's book sets that straight, also.
Mr. Davidson would like people to eat more of the lesser-known fish. He told me of a recipe for skate salad for a wedding breakfast in the 1920s. He mixes the skate with crabmeat and says if you can't get skate, use halibut cheeks, so you end up with halibut cheeks pretending to be skate pretending to be crabmeat. This is the kind of thing he likes to explore and develop.
Alan Davidson's "North Atlantic Seafood" (New York: Viking Press. $15.95) fills several of these needs. Not an ordinary cookbook, it has unusual scope since it's a complete guide to fish and shellfish on both sides of the North Atlantic. There are simple recipes chosen from each region to give an idea of the culture --adapted for American kitchens.
An Oxford University scholarship winner and a former British ambassador to Laos, Mr. Davidson has served duty tours in Washington, The Hague, Cairo, Brussels, and Tunis. In Tunis he wrote his first cookbook, "Mediterranean Seafood."
He and his American-born wife, Jane, now live in the Chelsea section of London.He works in the basement of his 1880 white townhouse, where I talked with him one brisk, wintry day.
Mr. Davidson shares his research with his wife and three daughters. His daughter Jennifer has been working in the publishing company, Prospect Publishing, which her father founded with Elizabeth David and Jill Norman.
A section on recipes from the Soviet Union was written by daughter Pamela Davidson, who spent most of 1976 in Russia researching the fish cookery of northwestern Russia and the three Baltic republics.
In "North Atlantic Seafood" Mr. Davidson takes into account the distribution and migrations of human beings and fish and of the flow of culinary influences as well as that of ocean currents.
The book starts with two small but clear maps of the ocean currents of the Atlantic, and if that turns you off, perhaps this isn't the kind of cookbook you would like. On the other hand, if this is the kind of in-depth information you've been looking for, you'll be well pleased. It is equally enjoyable to read and to cook from.
Here is a springtime recipe from the book. Mr. Davidson notes that plain shad roe is excellent; but there are occasions when one wants to turn it into something more grand. This recipe based on one in the bicentennial edition of "Maryland's Way," meets the need. Maryland Stuffed Shad Roe 4 pairs shad roes 3 ounces butter 1/2 pound lump crab meat 1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted 1 1/2 tablespoons flour 1 cup light cream Salt and pepper
Poach roes, drain them and let them cool.Then fry in butter in a heavy skillet until they are a rich brown on both sides.
Make a cream sauce by stirring flour into melted butter over gently heat. Gradually add cream, stirring until sauce has thickened. Season and add crab meat.
Split each half-roe open, taking care not to cut it completely in two. Stuff each with sauce. Reheat briefly in oven and serve with, for example, fresh asparagus and a Hollan daise sauce.