Here is the redacted version of a food chapter left out of 'My World Café'. Names of people and places have been changed. Drawing by my wonderful illustrator, Laura Davis.
My childhood years in London were a time of post-war food rationing, but there was no shortage of fish. During war time, sea fishing had been restricted and afterwards our coastal seas had plentiful shoals.
Every week my mother fried cod, haddock, skate or plaice, but I remember clearly my first memory of eating fish out of the home. I was seven when my father took me to a fish and chip shop in Bromley High Street. I was fascinated by the gurgling oil vats and the smell of sizzling fish. He ordered battered cod for both of us, the chips wrapped in a page from the Daily Mirror; paper cone sprinkled with salt and dribbled with vinegar.
This will have been common to many readers of my generation, but few will have eaten other sea fish such as salmon, halibut and Dover and lemon sole. Even in the 1950s, these were rarities which only made it into the mouths of the well-to-do.
This was also true of freshwater fish. In writing this chapter I discovered that in England and Wales there are 40,000 miles of rivers, but less than 4% have public access. The person who owns the riverbank also owns the fishing rights.
As a member of the well-to-do, I was sent to Canford Public School in Dorset (for American readers public = private). There I fished on the River Stour which ran through the school grounds. My favourite spot was below the weir where, using a spinner, I used to catch pike, roach and the occasional trout. I can still see the 8- pound rainbow trout which the school chef kindly cooked for me and which I shared with my friends. It was a rare memory, and a rare break, from the weekly fishcakes.
It would be another forty years before I was to eat trout again. I was helping to organise medical programmes for War Child in Croatia and Bosnia when I received a call from the House of Lords. It was Lord Trout inviting me to lunch. He said he wanted my advice on a medical project.
This was not an invitation I was eager to accept. I had no desire to be hosted by an aristocrat in the unelected chamber of Parliament, the last
bastion of our feudal history. But when he said he was a ‘rapporteur’ for the countries of the former Yugoslavia, advising hospitals, how could I refuse?
Before I left for the lunch, I checked out his background. The family’s estate is located on the banks of a river, well stocked with fish. During our meal I was looking for the opportunity to tell him my fishing joke.
Before our meeting, I hadn’t looked up how to address my host: “Your Earlship”, “Your Lordship”? “Your honour”? I went for the option of nothing at all. I scanned the menu and decided I would eat fish.
“What would you like to start with?” he asked.
“I’ll take the haked ham hock with pickled shallots please, and for the main course I’ll go for the rainbow trout.”
“Wise choice. The fish here are very good.”
I then asked him how I could help him with his work in Croatia.
“I’m told that you provided a ventilator to Zagreb’s Klaićeva childen’s hospital and are now supplying insulin for diabetic children in Bosnia. I have been asked to advise on setting up a maternity unit in S. I have to know how many beds will be needed.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea, but I suspect there’s a ratio which will help you.”
“Based on the town’s population.”
“Oh that’s very interesting,” his Lordship said and opened his notebook to start writing.
“You could contact the British Medical Journal or The Lancet and check if they have any information.”
He continued scribbling. “Very interesting, thank you.”
“Or you could contact the World Health Organisation.”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“ Have you been to S? You could ask them how they managed before the war.”
“Very interesting. Thank you so much.” He scribbled a bit more, then closed his notebook. “Coffee on the terrace?”
I hadn’t dared tell him my joke which went like this. A miner was caught by a gamekeeper fishing on the river that ran through the grounds of a vast estate owned by an atistocrat. Hauled before the landowner, the miner was told that he was trespassing.
“How dare you steal fish. This is my land”, spluttered the angry Lord. “Why is it your land?” asked the miner.
“It has been in my family for generations, from the time of my great-great- great grandfather,” replied his lordship..
“How did he get it?” asked the miner.
“He fought for it.”
The miner raised his fists, “Well then we’ll fight for it.”
On my way out I passed a line of wheelchairs with name tags of their owners on each one: “Lord X”, “Lady Y”, “The Earl of Z”.
6 Rainbow trout fillets
6 lemons, sliced
350 g red cabbage, finely shredded
sea salt and ground white pepper to taste 2 tbsp red wine vinegar 1 cup sour cream 1 tbsp dill, chopped
Trim the trout fillets and remove as many bones as possible. Tip the cabbage and oil into a large bowl and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook the cabbage in a large frying pan, lifting and tossing to keep the cabbage moving. Pour on the vinegar and mix in the dill, then cover and and steam/cook for a minute. Place sliced lemon inside each fillet, spray with oil and cook for 2 minutes each side. Serve by putting the cabbage into the middle of each dinner plate, lean the fish against the cabbage and serve the sour cream on the side.