Honestly – they were this big!

This weekend I caught a bit of must-see TV. On Saturday night I watched a weepie – or was it a horror story? Whatever it was, it didn’t seem like a happy ending to me, and the end of the line seemed far too close for comfort.

After backing into a brief intellectual cul-de-sac where I basked in the idea of lobster becoming the new cod (until it too was fished to oblivion), I started imagining having to describe the taste of extinct types of fish – or perhaps fish as a whole species – to my grandchildren. What a job that would be: to provide a first-hand account of an animal we did nothing to save without cringing with shame. ‘Well, they were about yea big (bigger if you believe some fishermen), with scales and googly eyes and flaky flesh that could sometimes be as pure white as coconut meat is. What did they smell of, you ask? Well, they smelt, erm… fishy. How did they taste? Well, I gobbled them down so quickly I didn’t pay much attention to the taste itself, but they were delicious, I can tell you that much. A very delicate flavour, went a treat with lemons, even more delicious stuffed with shellfish. Shellfish? Oh, shellfish were other creatures that used to live in the oceans. Yes, we would eat both at one sitting, why?’

People of Britain, we need a wake-up call. At the Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum you can imagine with unease the hardship of fifteen years of food rationing, the only produce available being things that Britain could produce under its own steam, mainly: potatoes, wheat, turnips, potatoes, cabbages, apples, potatoes and cabbages. Meat rations were cut, cut and then cut again, until butchers used their shop windows to advertise for magicians’ services. Meanwhile, our ancestors had to endure fifteen years of reinventing the potato. Some of this reinvention was done a little too evangelistically by the Ministry of Food itself. Anyone ever tried potato water to add flavour to soups and stews? By jove, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a mouthwatering potato in the morning instead of run-of-the-mill toast! Run out of butter for your pastry or flour for your cake? Why, a potato will do the trick.

Surely queuing for hours at the grocers only to come home with powdered egg, margarine, wheatmeal bread and an orange juice vitamin supplement, as gloopy as cod liver oil and as lurid as Lucozade would be enough to break the spirit of those plucky wartime Brits, who – let’s face it – already had a lot of crap on their plates? But no. They soldiered on, pulling together for the Home Front, digging for victory and sharing recipes for Portman pudding. No, the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was the introduction of a new type of fish – a colin for the wartime age – the South African fish known as snoek. It arrived tinned and with huge fanfare from the MoF’s PR department, then lurked around in the back of everyone’s cupboard for fifteen years unopened, before being shooed out the back door as soon as peacetime returned. Things got hairy during the war, but they were never bad enough to make snoek an appealing dinnertime option.

Let that be a lesson to us now. If we eat the ocean dry of cod, then develop a taste for its lesser-loved cousins, then move on to fish that can boast it once swam in the same space as a cod, then by 2048 – just a century on from the Second World War – we’ll be casting our nets around for anything at all. And, only if we’re very lucky, we’ll come back from the market with a snoek.

So, having written about my fear of fish last week, here’s a guilt-assuaging fish-loving entry to smooth the waters between people like me and our gilled friends. Here’s to fish: may they live long and prosper, to give the willies to my children and my children’s children and generations to come.

Portman pudding (Wartime Government recipe of dubious taste)

50g/2oz fat

2 tbsp sugar

100g/4oz grated raw carrot

100g/4oz grated raw potato

165g/6oz flour

pinch of salt

1 tsp mixed spice

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

115g/4oz sultanas and raisins

Cream together the fat and sugar. Add the carrot, potato, flour, salt, mixed spice and bicarbonate of soda. MIx well. Add the dried fruit. Add water if necessary to make a stiff dropping consistency. Steam for almost two hours.

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