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Fish night: Seared halibut aiolli garni

Memories of Friday night fish night inspired this nostalgic and tasty dish.

By Jonny and Amy Seponara-SillsWe Are Never Full / December 9, 2011

Pan-roasted halibut with aioli garni and butter beans.

We Are Never Full

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I’m not very old, but for much of my youth in the north west of England, it was almost impossible to find fresh foods that weren’t local. Today such a statement seems like an echo of Victorian times, but, literally, that’s how it was until a supermarket was built behind the Knutsford courthouse in the late 1980s.  

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I often tell my wife about the cheese stall at the weekly market only kept five kinds of cheese – Cheshire, Cheddar, Lancashire, and sage Derby were ever present, with perhaps a Wenslydale reasonably common, too. If anything as unusual as a Stilton, from distant Nottinghamshire, appeared, it would generate as much commotion among the town’s housewives, who elbowed their way to the front of the queue to catch a glimpse of this highly perfumed foreigner, as if Julio Iglesias showed up sporting his tennis shorts. My wife usually responds that I should count myself lucky because when she was young there were only four kinds of cheese at her local supermarket: white American, yellow American, cheddar, and Swiss and had anything else been available it would have been looked upon with extreme suspicion. Touché.

Making our weekly Tuesday rounds of the covered (indoor) market (the outdoor market sold mostly fruit and veg, bric-a-brac, and live pets, believe it or not) with my mother, on the cheese man’s left was the egg man, or “mister Chookie” as I knew him, on account of his perennial sales pitch “come tek a look at these lover-lee chookie eggs I’ve got for yuh!” Unlike his fellow stall-holders, whose wares fell within a particular genre, the egg man also sold milk, orange juice, and yogurt due to him being one of the younger siblings of the Sheldon family that owned the local dairy, and who, excepting market days, delivered these provisions to the doorsteps of the town’s residents.

Beyond Mr. Chookie was the fish man, Mr. Scales, as my mother used to call him, although at the time her pun was lost on me. Above his stall ran the legend “fresh daily from Fleetwood, Lancs”, referring to the port just north of Blackpool where much of Britain’s catch was landed. That his stall was only open Tuesdays and Thursdays didn’t seem to matter. Whether it was due to her upbringing in Blackpool where there is – rightfully – a great deal of local snobbery about the quality of the fish that goes into their fish 'n’ chips, or whether because of an innate suspicion of fishmongers, my mother always eyed Mr. Scales’s wares closely, casting a wary eye over his glossy fish, as if trying to discern if there was anything untoward hiding among the cockle-shells.

Because we rarely had fish except on Fridays when we weren’t allowed anything else – even in our lunchboxes at school we had to mark the end of the week with evil-smelling “salmon paste” sandwiches – and because Mum worked a full day on Thursdays, whatever we bought on Tuesdays had to last on ice in the bottom of the fridge until then (freezing fish made it taste all woolly, she always said), so freshness was absolutely crucial otherwise it/we wouldn’t survive.

Typically, the fish was cod, but often halibut or hake did service in the flaky white fish department. This was usually broiled and served with oven-baked chips, since as a nurse my mother couldn’t countenance deep-frying at home lest it give the townies the impression she was a hypocrite in her dietary exhortations, and homemade mushy peas, flecked with mint and tangy with a splash of malt vinegar. Apart from a distinctly nontraditional and rather dodgy-looking “curry” she made every so often, Friday night fish suppers were my dad’s favorite – he still demands it to this day and he is about as agnostic an Anglican as you’ll find.

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