Fishing is definitely one of those ‘men things’. Like sport on TV, owning a drill and having an obsessive relationship with ones own facial hair – it’s one of those pastimes that, for us, can’t be helped. And I guess, by way of explanation, you can glibly say, “it’s a primal thing”, but at the end of the day it’s probably a little more layered than that.
You see, what I wanted wasn’t necessarily about fishing as such, it was more about (and feel free to laugh) taking my place in that Circle of Life thing that Elton John endlessly drones on about. What I wanted was very simple: Catch, Cook and Eat. Start the day with nothing, and end it with a full stomach, made so by my own ingenuity.
You see if you look at it, fishing has a lot going for it over other forms of catching animals that you intend to eat: the contemplative silence, the scope for a zen-like meditative state, the inevitable bonding that takes place between men when there’s an “Us vs. Nature” situation, the excuse to stand around and drink a lot of beer, and the distinct lack of high-powered rifles – which make me uncomfortable. Mostly what’s always appealed to me is this crazy idea that there’s food out there in the world just swimming about, waiting for anyone adept enough at tricking it into biting down on a nice shiny hook. Now this applies quite neatly to the practice of sea-fishing, (or that pretentious trout-fishing thing that people do with self-made lures that always seem to be called a “Jiminy Cricket”, or a “Lazy Sue’s Retirement Package”) because saltwater fish is delicious. But for the most part, freshwater fish are a slightly different prospect. You’ve got to work a lot harder to change a freshwater fish from “swimming creature with fins” into “deliciousness on a plate”. Most bass, bream or if you’re unlucky enough, barbel, have a flavour that can best be described as an unpleasant mix of algae, mud and fish that’s been hanging around the bad end of the pond too much. They almost seem to taste just like a dam looks. And its very ‘fishy’ – if that makes sense. But the prospect of cooking dinner out of something I’ve caught obsesses me no end, and so, when I was invited to a friend’s farm for a long weekend of fishing I leapt at the chance.
The only problem is that I suck at it. Like…completely.
Well, lets quantify that. It’s not like I throw the rod in the water instead of casting out the line, snag the hook on the back of my own head or fall in the water every five minutes. But, there’s just a knack I just don’t have, an affinity that’s missing, which means that fishing for me is endlessly throwing an organic rubber worm into some water for two hours, pulling it back and wondering what these ‘fish’ that everyone talks about might actually look like.
You see, fish are cruel bastards; they love nothing more than to show off just how many of them are around, none of which are going to be caught by you. They do this by literally doing backflips out the water, complicated dance routines and what looks like the second act of the Russian Underwater Ballet’s re-imagining of A Streetcar Named Desire – all about 3 feet beyond the range of where you’re casting. So you know they’re there, but damned if you can actually do anything about it.
So, standing on the edge of the dam, endlessly casting my stupid rubber worm into what looked like a fish mardis gras which had decided I wasn’t on the guestlist, I was starting to get a little despondent about this whole cooking what you catch thing, until Greg yelled that he’d gotten one. A big one.
Okay – so it wasn’t massive, but since the point of the whole exercise was to provide enough flesh to make cooking the thing worthwhile, it was definitely in our range. The problem is that once you’ve decided that this is going to be ‘the one’, you can’t just leave it flopping around on the bank – you’ve actually got to man up and, you know… kill it. This is where we sort of um’d and ah’d about the whole idea for a bit, shuffling our feet on the side of the river until I settled it all by smashing our lunch on the head with my cricket bat. Which is probably a first in a whole lot of ways.
Gutting a fish isn’t nearly as bad you’d think, especially in the case of a bass, which is mostly all head – but you do need a sharp knife. You basically hold the fish by the tail, make an incision just behind the rear fin before its belly, and cut past it all the way up to the head. At this point a couple of orange things will fall out and the rest will sort of just hang there waiting to be scraped out with your knife. Hose it down with a jet of water and you’re good to go. The hosing down bit is important, because most freshwater fish have a covering of bacterial slime that actually protects them from … stuff they need protecting from. Useful stuff that slime, but it’s disgusting, and you want to scrape, scrub and wash as much of it off as possible.
So, lunch ended up being bush-style Fish and Chips:
Because freshwater bass really isn’t the friendliest of flavours, substitute for a whole trout or salmon and you’ll be smiling.
5 or 6 potatoes (peeled)
A lot of thyme
3 or 4 carrots
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
2 small brown onions (or one big one)
2 cloves of garlic
1 cup of white wine
1 quarter of a cup of white wine vinegar
1 lemon cut into wedges
salt and pepper
What to do:
Boil the peeled potatoes in salted water for about half an hour to 45 minutes. They’re done when you can easily push a knife through without any resistance. Drain the water, and then slice the potatoes into centimeter-thick discs. Heat your oven to as hot as it can go, lay the potatoes flat onto a baking tray, splash with some olive oil, rub it into the potatoes just to make sure they’re covered, season with salt and pepper and then bung them in the oven until they’re crisp and golden.
In the meantime, slice up your carrots, peppers, garlic and onion as thinly as you reasonably can and soften in a pan with a generous handful of thyme leaves (get someone to remove them from the stalk for you, because it’s a pain in the ass), a bit of olive oil, two tablespoons of honey and a pinch of salt and pepper. Get it so that the vegetables are starting to caramelize in the honey and taking on a richer colour, but not completely wilted just yet.
Once the potatoes are done, remove the tray from the oven. Move the potatoes around to make a space in the middle. Spoon half the vegetable from your pan onto the potatoes and the space you’ve made for the fish, and then put your fish onto that space.
Stuff the fish with a couple of lemon wedges and a fair amount of whole thyme stalks and grind in some salt and pepper. Then cover the fish with the rest of the vegetables. Slice up the two tomatoes and arrange the slices over the fish and the vegetables. Pour in the cup of white wine, cover with a sheet of tinfoil and put it into the oven pre-heated to 220 °C.
Cook for about 25 minutes and then remove from the oven, open up the tinfoil pour in the white wine vinegar and put back in the oven, uncovered for about 10 minutes or so.
At that point the fish should be turning a golden brown, the vegetables will just be starting to glaze and darken and a lovely wine/vinegar/honey sauce should be bubbling at the bottom of the tray, Serve as is.
So – if I were to check my objectives against what actually happened, a) I didn’t manage to catch anything (that’s what useful and more-skilled friends are for apparently) b) the fish we actually did catch tasted like fish-flavoured dam water, but the potatoes were awesome.