Fallout food

In the fabulous resource that is the National Library of Australia’s Trove, I found this in the Singleton Argus of July 1951:

All Ready For The A-Bomb
Baltimore is the first American city to plan its menu for the first day after an atom-bomb attack. Stew, with coffee, tea or milk, will be dished out from canteens in paper plates and cups. Emergency Food Committee chairman Howard Busick apologised, “We’re not catering to people’s palates, you know. We merely want to keep them alive. [He said] “All food stocks in the city will be immediately commandeered by the authorities after the first bombfall.”

The Australian Women’s Weekly picked up the story.

By the time I was at primary school the Vietnam War had replaced the atomic threat from the Soviet Union as Public Anxiety Number One. But every now and then we’d be reminded of the need to be prepared. Exactly what this preparedness involved was vague, but I do remember being told that we should urge our mothers to keep their cupboards stocked with canned foods, which we’d need in the event of … whatever.

My mother and father probably laughed when I passed on this instruction. But for at least one of my classmates it wasn’t a joke. Everything about Stuart T was big. He was big for his age, he lived in a big house and was given to boasting big time. His family, he told us, had their own bomb shelter. Don’t believe you, we said. Have so. Show us then.

So one day after school he took us down a flight of steps into his family ‘shelter’. Now I think about it I’m pretty sure it was simply a basement with grey concrete walls and shelves of tins—peas, pineapple, potato salad, Fray Bentos corned beef, Heinz baked beans, Campbell’s soups—and bottles of cream soda and ginger beer. More Famous Five than Armageddon, à la Five Go Into a Fallout Shelter.

Wouldn’t a nuclear attack cut off the power supply? And wouldn’t that mean sitting in your ‘shelter’ eating cold soup? I don’t recall getting satisfactory answers to those questions, but decades later my mother informed me that Stuart T’s parents had died and their house had been sold. Did the new owners know their basement was full of ancient tins of Spam and spaghetti? The Pantry That Time Forgot full of vintage packaging and food way past its use-by date.

Continuing with this theme, I have a booklet from 1964 put out by the US Department of Defense Office of Civil Defense: Fallout Shelter Food Requirements.

‘The purpose of provisioning fallout shelters with food is to provide basic nutritional requirements during the period of confinement so that shelter occupants can resume active and productive lives upon emergence.’

‘Basic requirements for shelter food … are that the food be palatable or at least acceptable to the majority of the shelter occupants; have sufficient storage stability to permit a shelf life of 5 to 10 years; be obtainable at low cost; be widely available or easily produced; have high bulk density to conserve storage space; require little or no preparation; and produce a minimum trash volume …The four food items selected for the provisioning program are as follows:

a. Survival Biscuit. A wheat flour baked product containing small amounts of corn and soy flour developed by the National Biscuit Co. for the New York State Civil Defense Commission.
b. Survival Cracker. A wheat-corn flour baked cracker, similar to the survival biscuit, except that it contains more corn flour and no soy flour, developed by the Midwest Research Institute for the State of Nebraska.
c. Carbohydrate Supplement. Adapted from a standard product in accordance with a military specification and contains sucrose, glucose, and flavorings.
d. Bulgur Wafer. A wheat-based cereal product developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Office of Civil Defense. The bulgur is parboiled, pulled, dried, and compacted into wafer form.’

Compared to that menu, tinned carrots and rice pudding sound positively ambrosial!

The mutton-fishers

I’ve eaten pāua fritters in New Zealand, had it stir fried and braised in Cantonese restaurants, but however cooked, I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever much liked it. And the photographs that accompany its online recipes do little to increase its appeal.

A is for abalone, and in dictionaries of food and cooking, you’ll find it up there on page 1. An expensive delicacy. Prized by Chinese and Japanese chefs in particular. But my interest in abalone isn’t culinary. I’m coming at it more from a cultural and environmental history perspective.

Abalone is the common name for a number of species of sea snails. Biologists label them marine gastropod molluscs, and they belong to the genus Haliotis—as does pāua. They live along open coastlines in what’s called the swell zone, and to help them hold on to rocks in these waters they’ve developed a large, muscular foot. Unlike scallops or mussels, which have two shells hinged together, abalone and pāua have just the one.

Black lip abalone at the Sydney Fish Market, 2018.

An important part of the diet of indigenous peoples on both sides of the Tasman, pāua shells with their iridescent blue-green lining also feature in Māori art and craftworks.

Although it’s often presented as such, the settler history of Australia was never exclusively British. I’m always alert to stories, snippets and incidental remarks that reveal the cultural diversity of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australia. That’s how I came across the Chinese mutton-fishers of Tasmania. A 1937 article by Thomas Dunbabin mentions that ‘fifty years ago this south had a Chinese colony … engaged in gathering and curing mutton-fish’. Early Europeans called abalone mutton-fish and found it unpalatable—an opinion shared by Dunbabin who compares its taste to ‘boot-leather’.

In 1860 the Hobart Town Advertiser commented on the presence and enterprise of Chinese fishers and seafood traders on the island. ‘These Chinamen have betaken themselves down the Channel and commenced curing crayfish for the Melbourne market.’

Green-lipped Abalone, Haliotis laevigata, by John James Wild, 1887.

The story of these Chinese mutton-fishers in Tasmania is sketchy; accounts are sparse, written records limited. The Royal Society, at its monthly meeting in March 1869, noted a presentation of ‘two specimens of the dried mutton-fish (Haliotis sp.) prepared by the Chinese at Southport, near Spring Bay.’ In his accompanying explanation Mr Justin Browne wrote that once caught the fish is ‘dried in a slow oven built for the purpose’, then packed for export. In a pre-refrigeration age knowing how to preserve food was an important skill.

Two years later, in his report of recent fieldwork, amateur geologist, occasional poet and prominent Hobart citizen Samuel Henry Wintle wrote:

‘Nestling among a clump of trees on the western shore of the Port, stood a dwelling built of palings, which, I was informed, was the abode of John Ling, a Chinese, whose acquaintance I had made in Hobart Town some months before. John had married a Tasmanian girl—the daughter of one of the residents of the District—and has by her a family of six children. He is employed in fishing for the Chinese market, and drives a very good trade. The mutton fish, as it is locally named—the Haliotis, or sea-ear of the naturalist … [is captured] by spearing … Armed with a long, iron-pointed spear, the fisher thrusts it through the shell, whereupon the mollusc relaxes its hold, and is brought to the surface.’

Jane Grigson’s Fish Book runs well over five-hundred pages, but she gives abalone a mere page-and-a-half. And a single recipe: Ormeaux au Muscadet. (Ormeaux is the French name for abalone.) After pounding the flesh ‘energetically’ it’s prepared with butter, herbs and white wine. Cooking time 30-45 minutes. I’m wary of questioning the great Jane, and perhaps that pounding makes all the difference, but isn’t abalone, like most seafood, best cooked very quickly over a high heat? Or for a long time on a low heat?

Collecting wild abalone wasn’t—still isn’t—an easy task. Dunbabin describes the tragic fate of one Chinese fisherman who put his hand into an open shell: ‘It closed on him, and, in his awkward and constrained position, he could neither withdraw his hand nor wrench the mutton-fish from the rocks. So he was held down till he was drowned by the rising tide.’

I suspect the difficulty of gathering abalone adds not only to its value, but also to its mystique. I’m thinking here of things like the TV series Abalone Wars which followed hardcore dive crews under pressure to meet their multi-million dollar quotas. Or the famous ‘sea-women’ (haenyeo 해녀) of Jeju Island in South Korea who dive without breathing equipment to harvest abalone and other creatures from the ocean floor. (The traditional practice of the haenyeo was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2016.)

Closer to home, abalone were at the centre of a dispute between commercial interests and native title in a recent ABC news item. Fisheries NSW accused an Aboriginal man of taking too many abalone, in breach of regulations. Fortunately the case against the man—who hails from a long line of Indigenous divers—was dropped.

Nowadays abalone is farmed as well as wild-caught. I live near Sydney’s Fish Market, so the other day I took a short walk to see if abalone was on sale there. It was—frozen.

Frozen abalone at the Sydney Fish Market, 2018.

In Dead Seas: How the fish on our plates is killing our planet, Taras Grescoe says that much of the abalone now sold is poached. From an upscale seafood restaurant in Shanghai where abalone in glass tanks wait ‘to be selected by a diner’, he reveals the worrying fact that ‘China manages to import twice as much Australian abalone as Australians are legally allowed to harvest every year’. Grescoe’s book was published in 2008, but if this 2017 story from the ABC is any indication, the abalone black market is alive and flourishing.

Drama and risk-taking surround abalone, but what does it actually taste like? A bit salty, a bit sweet, somewhere between a scallop and overdone calamari. I didn’t buy it from the Fish Market that day, not because it was frozen, but because I think you can get other types of locally grown seafood that taste much better and cost less.

As for the Chinese mutton-fishers, their business suffered when when the Victorian Government imposed a tariff on seafood in 1872, and then increased it three years’ later. But their pioneering endeavours are remembered—kind of. The name Chinaman’s Bay recalls those who fished off Maria Island. But of those migrants who worked out of Southport or Ketchem Island (the site of Dunbabin’s reference), there’s no trace.

The ways of watercress

I like watercress. I like it in sandwiches, sometimes as a single filling, sometimes with Wensleydale or Cheshire cheese. I put it in stir-fries and salads—it plays well with beetroot. I make watercress lasagne, and of course, soup.

‘Watercress is a leafy paradox,’ says a 2006 Australian Government report into the potential for its production. ‘Cool when first experienced and then hot, when chewed.’

As that report points out, watercress is not widely used in this country. In Europe and Asia it’s a popular vegetable sold in shops and markets, but in Australia and New Zealand we’re more likely to encounter it as a weed.

Yet watercress has been part of the culinary repertoire for a long time. It was prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s mentioned in a play by Aristophanes (Clouds). The Romans ate it with oil and vinegar and believed its consumption promoted clarity of thought and bold decision-making.

Although watercress was first cultivated in Germany during the sixteenth century, it wasn’t farmed commercially in Britain until the nineteenth. The development of the railway system made it possible to transport carriage-loads of the plant from beds in England’s southern counties to London’s Covent Garden Market. A food of the poor, watercress helped at least one poor girl make her fortune. Eliza James, who earned the nickname the Watercress Queen, began her business career at the age of five hawking bunches of the wild stuff to factory workers. She ended up with a near monopoly supplying the vegetable to London’s restaurants and hotels.

‘I am sorry I cannot give the name of the public benefactor who introduced this wholesome and useful plant [watercress] into our Queensland streams,’ said Mr F M Bayley in a paper read at the Linnaean Society in 1879. ‘But I may take the opportunity of stating that it was propagated in the South Australian watercourses in about 1842 by Mrs S Davenport, a lady who took great interest in horticulture, and to whom the colony is indebted for the introduction of many useful plants.’

A decade later, in another paper, this one entitled Blunders in Acclimatisation, horticulturalist William Clarson wrote ‘Many years ago, seeds of the common watercress were given away from several of the botanic gardens in the colonies, to induce settlers to sow the banks of the creeks and rivers.’

‘Watercress stands alone. It is not quite so individual as celery, but there is nothing to rival it in its own domain.’ In 1896 the Maitland Daily Mercury waxed lyrical. ‘It is eloquent of the charm of its native environment. Nothing else … speaks or sings to the eater, as watercress does, of cool streams and overhanging banks and lush herbage … The spirit of the rivulet abides in its heart.’

How watercress arrived in Australia remains open to debate. Likewise whether it was a deliberate or accidental introduction—or some combination of both. A member of the mustard family Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum, also known as Nasturtium officinale, is found in waterways, wetlands, drains and irrigation channels—pretty much anywhere damp and not too hot, in fact. At one stage it was declared a noxious weed in Queensland and it’s listed here in my 2011 edition of Weeds of the South East as widespread in all states.

In many parts of Australia the spread of watercress was curbed by periodic drought. But in cooler, rainier New Zealand watercress thrived unchecked. Such an obstruction did it become that the Province of Canterbury passed the Watercress Ordinance, 1864. Despite stiff penalties for people who ‘wilfully cut loosen or dislodge watercresses or other weeds in or from any river or stream or the banks of any river or stream’ the plant remained a huge problem. Its ‘leaves growing as large as those of a water lily, and the stems as thick as those of a man’s wrist,’ according to Wellington’s Evening Post. While another newspaper complained: ‘The watercress of our breakfast tables, in Europe a mere casual brook-side plant, chokes the New Zealand rivers with stems twelve feet long, and costs the colonists of Christchurch alone £300 a year in dredging their Avon free from it.’

Unlike those nineteenth century New Zealanders I don’t see watercress as a breakfast food. For me it’s a lunchtime sandwich. Or Alexandre Dumas’s winter salad. The author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, by all accounts a fine cook, also penned a Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (Great Dictionary of Cooking). ‘Le cresson de fontaine est aussi une salade d’hiver, et on l’assaisonne habituellement avec des tranches de betteraves et quelques filets d’olives tournés.’ Watercress is also a winter salad, and is usually seasoned with slices of beetroot and some pitted olives.

I’ll say it again: I like watercress. I like its reliable pepperiness and I like its link with southeast England where I grew up. My mother was an avid forager and I have fond memories of wading into streams with her to gather wild watercress. (If you do pick it wild be careful. If cattle and sheep graze nearby it may host a parasite known as liver fluke and will need cooking or very thorough washing. Mum put vinegar in the water and soaked her wild cress for 10-15 minutes.)

I think my favourite way of eating watercress is as a soup. A lot of recipes use flour and cream or other dairy products. I thicken mine with potatoes. Sauté a diced onion in olive oil and a little butter (omit the butter for a vegan version), add a crushed clove of garlic. While the onions cook, cut up 2 large potatoes and put them into the pot. Add vegetable stock, some parsley, salt, lots of pepper, nutmeg to taste, and cook until the potatoes are soft. Rinse your watercress (you need a couple of bunches) and discard any thick stems. Long cooking robs watercress of its punchy bite, so I blanche it then add it to the pot for just a couple of minutes’ cooking. I use a stick blender to liquidise it—but not too much, I like my watercress soup with a bit of texture.

Catering blends …

There’s something intriguing, slightly mysterious even, about those brands you find only in bulk order places—or hotel rooms.

Years ago as students we schlepped out to this cash and carry barn which sold large quantities at discount prices. Amongst our purchases was a huge tin of catering blend instant coffee. Back then ‘real coffee’ was for special occasions, take away was just taking off and the online marketplace a dot on the horizon. As for that tin of powdery catering blend, it sat on the shelf for months, slowly drying to a hard brown gravel.

Coffee culture has come a long way since that share house instant experience. ‘Real coffee’ is now the norm—and not only in restaurants. In fact, ordering a cappuccino or a short black in a café is usually a safer bet than ordering tea. Café tea can be a hit or miss affair, anything and everything from fragrant loose leaves to a no brand tea bag with a cup of hot water.

Which brings me to Pickwick. Pickwick is a brand I encounter in hotels. There it is next to the kettle—a selection of Pickwick tea bags: English Breakfast, Earl Grey, something green or herbal—alongside packets of sugar, sweeteners and stale biscuits. So I’ve come to equate Pickwick tea with catering blend tea. Although ‘catering blend’ is a label you don’t see so much these days. I’m sure it still exists but it’s probably called something less off-putting.

‘The monthly meetings of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association were held in a large room … Previous to the commencement of business, the ladies sat upon forms, and drank tea, till such time as they considered it expedient to leave off … On this particular occasion the women drank tea to a most alarming extent.’ Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers.

The last time I drank Pickwick it was an English Breakfast blend in a pale blue sleeve. Described as ‘a full-bodied lively and brisk black tea … to recharge your body at any time of the day.’ It tasted neither awful nor particularly good. But I was curious about the brand—and why I only ever happened on it in hotels. I discovered that …

Pickwick is part of the Douwe Egberts’ empire. The Dutch company has been selling tea since 1753, but the name Pickwick didn’t appear on the scene until 1937. It was apparently chosen by the wife of the then director; she was a fan of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. No doubt the PR machine thought the name would conjure positive images of Victorian firesides and Merrie Olde England—which as Dickens so vividly showed, wasn’t so merry if you were poor.

The Pickwick Papers was published in 1837. It’s the loosely related adventures of Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, as he travels through the English countryside with his companions. Dickens knew hunger, and his first novel revels in eating and drinking. Pigeon pie, broiled ham, oysters, cheese, hot buttered toast, wine, coffee—and tea.

I remember discussing food in literature during a writing workshop. Food as metaphor, overcooked adjectives, whether recipes belong in fictional texts. The tea provided by the organiser was a catering brew rather than deluxe Assam but the conversation was rich and malty.

Economy packs, generics, home brands, phantom brands, catering blend …

Perhaps the hotel industry is Pickwick’s niche? Its target clientele? I’ve not seen it for sale in any of my local supermarkets or grocery stores. But you can order it from Officeworks, under Catering Supplies (Tea, Coffee & Beverages) at a bulk buy price. Which kind of proves my point.

‘”You’ll take some tea, Mr. Pickwick?” said the old lady, with irresistible sweetness.
“Thank you, I would rather not,” replied that gentleman.’ Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers.

Eating New Zealand—tinned spaghetti and meat, meat, meat

New Zealand’s (then) Prime Minister opened a can of worms when he opened a can of spaghetti and put it on top of his homespun pizza. Back in April this year, Bill English cooked dinner for his family and posted photos of his creation on social media. Culinary uproar ensued. Some people said a pizza topped with bacon, pineapple chunks and tinned spaghetti was an abomination. Others said no, it was a South Island classic, quick to concoct and budget-friendly to boot. Cynics suggested it was an attempt to divert public attention from more serious political issues.

Yes, frozen pizzas and ready-meal spaghetti bear scant relation to their Italian origins, but the New Zealand PM’s effort was—let’s say in a class of its own. To me it was kiddie food. I remember spaghetti on toast served up on school camping trips, and there was a time when my brother and I considered Heinz tinned ravioli the height of sophistication and were forever pestering our mother to buy it.

I was in new Zealand last month on a research trip, and I have to say I found it a very meaty place. I eat fish and some seafood, but if you didn’t, or were vegan, eating out would be tricky. Across a range of eateries, meatless options were scarce. Menus often had just a single vegetarian offering, while dishes that are traditionally meatless—or could easily be made so—included meat. A Wellington restaurant, for example, had French onion soup—with added bacon bits. Why? I make this soup quite often, sometimes using a light vegetable stock, sometimes not. Bacon is not only totally unnecessary, it actually detracts from the delicious economy of the dish—a peasant recipe composed of onions, stale bread, cheese, and water.

There’s always tinned spaghetti …

I flew into Christchurch and early next morning boarded the bus to Dunedin. The trip took over five hours and in Oamaru we stopped for a thirty-minute lunch break. The driver directed us to the Lagonda Tea Rooms on Thames Street. It was a Sunday, and the Tea Rooms was one of the few places open. Inside were cabinets of cakes and slices, of sandwiches, pies (most featuring meat of some description) and a variety of things on toast. One of the few vegetarian possibilities was white bread spread with canned spaghetti and grilled cheese. I passed on the savoury options and went instead for half a piece of ginger crunch and a cup of tea.

In between working in the University of Otago library, I walked and caught local buses around Dunedin and out to nearby towns. I took note of the extensive range of old-fashioned bakery products (louise cake, lolly cake, Russian fudge, coconut ice and more) and the region’s fantastic secondhand shops. It was in one of those shops that I bought a copy of the 1952 publication The Hostess Cook Book by Helen Cox, a popular New Zealand food writer and broadcaster. On page 91 she has a recipe for ‘Spaghetti en casserole with bacon’. It goes like this:

‘(1) Open a 1-lb. tin of spaghetti and an 11-oz. tin of peas.
(2) Cook 2 eggs until hard (about 15 minutes).
(3) Place half the spaghetti in an oven dish then cover with the peas (well drained from liquid) and the eggs (sliced). Cover with the rest of the spaghetti.
(4) Cut think slices of bread into little triangles and place al over the dish, Cover with bacon rashers (rinds removed). Bake in a moderate over for 20-30 minutes until piping hot and the bacon is cooked and sizzling ..

Is cooking with tinned spaghetti a specifically New Zealand thing? I thought perhaps it was, but no, the Internet—where else?—has a plethora of dishes to make with tinned spaghetti. Everything from omelettes, pies and toasties to chicken spaghetti casserole.

So now you know.

The Book of Thistles

The Book of Thistles is coming …

From the wonderful UWA Publishing, the book will be released this October. More information here.

It fuses essay, monologue, poetry, digressions and archival collage. And there’s a section specifically on thistles as food.

Some plants have sustained empires and sparked wars. Some have ignited public outrage. Think tea, opium, tulips—and thistles. Yes, thistles. In 1852 South Australia passed its Thistle Act, probably the first weed control legislation anywhere in the world.

The word ‘thistle’ refers to a large and widespread group of plants. Several hundred species within the Asteraceae family, plus a bunch of other plants we call thistles—even though technically, botanically, they’re not. Google ‘thistles’ and many of the sites will tell you how to get rid of them. Dig a little deeper, however, and from this weedy territory other narratives begin to emerge.

Part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice on the page, The Book of Thistles is about the cultural and social life of this group of plants we call thistles.

My plaice

I love fish. Sardines, sashimi, smoked haddock chowder, Portuguese bacalhau, Bengali fish curry … but most of all I love plaice. Baked or grilled with a smudge of butter, salt, abundant white pepper, parsley and a lemon wedge. Jazzed up with leeks or a light scattering of chopped olives and anchovies.

‘In the seas of Europe the Plaice is found considerably toward the north, so that it is known along the coasts of Sweden, and in the Baltic. It is also met with in the Mediterranean; but it is nowhere in greater plenty than in a moderate depth of water round the British Islands, where it forms an important object of the trawl fishery.’

That’s from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch. It was published in the 1860s, before warming sea temperatures drove plaice and other species further north.

Plaice from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch, 1862-5

The European plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) is a Northern Hemisphere flatfish. You don’t find it in southern waters or for sale in Australia. So I try to eat my fill on visits to England. When my mother was alive I’d cook fresh fillets or whole fish and serve them with a reduced fat rémoulade (one-third mayonnaise, two-thirds yoghourt, capers and fine-diced pickled gherkin).

More recent trips to England I’ve usually been staying in places with minimal kitchen facilities, so I’ve had to get my plaice-fix ready cooked. Before I discovered the rather wonderful North Sea Fish restaurant and take away during my last visit to London, this usually meant a fish and chip shop.

Grilled plaice at London’s North Sea Fish restaurant, March 2017

Popular fish cooking in the UK has traditionally involved a lot of frying, battering and bread-crumbing. While batter works for end-of-the-pier fish and chips eaten out of newspaper, when it comes to plaice I prefer mine batter-free. Its flesh is soft and delicate, its taste subtle, almost milky. A light, barely-there tempura-type batter might be OK, but thick batter overwhelms the fish. I also like plaice served cold in a Danish style open sandwich with shavings of cucumber.

Plaice is often eclipsed by its rich relatives, sole and turbot. For Jane Grigson ‘the sole is the darling of the sea. Of all the things we eat the greatest stimulus to chefly lyricism’. Plaice she regards as inferior in every respect. It belongs to a Britain of corner chippies, brass bands, Victorian brickwork and laundrettes.

Last month in London I used a laundrette for the first time in years—because along with no means of cooking, the place I was staying had no laundry either. While the dryers tumbled pocket dramas played out. Over the fabric conditioner an Aussie backpacker chatted up an American exchange student. An ex-soldier explained how PTSD made it impossible for him to travel on the underground.

Billingsgate has been London’s fish market since 1699. We went there on a school excursion.  Rendezvoused in the pre-dawn dark, climbed aboard the coach and headed to the Italianate building that housed the market before it relocated to the Isle of Dogs in 1982. Inside the slang was Cockney, the light murky and everything smelt fishy. Miss pointed out crates of glistening plaice, cod from the Arctic and boxes of exotica from distant oceans.

Plaice fillets on sale at Waitrose, March 2017

What does a plaice look like? This is William Yarrell’s description from 1836:

‘The character and appearance of the various species of Pleuronectidæ, or Flatfish … are so peculiar and so unique among vertebrated animals as to claim particular attention. The want of symmetry in the form of the head; both eyes placed on the same side, one higher than the other … ’

Yes, they look as if they’ve swum out of a painting by Picasso. One side is white, the other dark and freckled with spots the colour of orange cordial. This makes sense when you know that plaice spend most of their adult life lying sideways on the seabed. The fry resemble those of other fish with two eyes in the usual place, but as they grow, the left eye migrates to the other side of their head. And the plaice spends the rest of its life with both eyes staring up at the roof of the ocean, and no way at all of looking down. How did this asymmetry evolve? Even Darwin was baffled.

In a North London charity shop I found a slim hardback The Plaice being the Buckland Lectures for 1949 by R S Wimpenny. It’s one of those old, odd publications you sometimes find on the dustier shelves of secondhand bookshops or under a pile of blankets at a garage sale. One-hundred and forty-five pages inside a green cover. A whole book about the plaice … Wow.

Blastula and gastrula, operculum and optic vessels … It’s too technical, too scientific to be an easy read, but I do learn that concern about overfishing and conservation efforts go back to the reign of King Edward III in the fourteenth century.

Cultures have built culinary mythologies and identities around the cooking and consumption of certain seafoods—Japanese sushi, the bouillabaisse of Marseille, kippers and wild salmon from Scotland. Not so for the plaice. Flat of face, plaice is considered an unremarkable, also-ran sort of fish. Unlike Mark Kurlansky’s cod (A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, 1997) and Donald S Murray’s herring (How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, 2015) plaice didn’t change the world or shape human history.

This recipe for fish soup from 1852’s A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes highlights Pleuronectes platessa’s lowly status:

‘Cod-fish cuttings, Dutch plaice, skate, dabs, haddocks, cod’s-heads, cod’s tails, or any fresh-water fish you may happen to catch when fishing, conger eels cut in slices, and almost any kind of fish which may come within your means are all more or less fit for making a good mess of soup for a meal … This kind of fish soup will prove the more advantageous near the sea-coast, where inferior kinds of fish are always very cheap.’

Overlooked and under-rated it may be, but plaice remains my number one fish.