Few readers are likely to follow this recipe; but all will benefit from absorbing its lesson and from a taste of Brillat-Savarin’s prose.
A very large turbot is not easy to cook whole. The Roman emperor Domitian is said to have consulted the Senate about such a problem. A similar one confronted a French family at Villecrêne, when they were expecting Brillat-Savarin, among others, to dinner. There was no vessel large enough to take the turbot whole and opinions within the family were divided about the propriety of cutting it in half. The dispute still raged and one member of the family actually had a chopper in his grasp, when Brillat-Savarin arrived and quelled the hubbub by announcing with calm authority that the turbot was to remain in one piece.
He then proceeded to the kitchen, followed by the household and their own cook, and inspected the available utensils and the ovens. All were too small for the huge fish; but Brillat-Savarin, espying a large copper wash-boiler fitted on top of its own stove, declared that the turbot would be cooked on that.
And straight away, although it was already dinner-time, I set everyone to work. While some lit the furnace, I made a sort of hurdle, of the exact size of the giant fish, from a fifty-bottle pannier. On this hurdle I spread a layer of roots and savoury herbs, on which the fish was laid, after being well scoured, well dried, and suitably salted. A second layer of the same seasoning was spread on the turbot’s back. Then the hurdle with its load was placed over the copper, which had been half-filled with water; and the whole was covered with a small washtub, round which some dry sand was heaped, to prevent the steam from escaping too easily. Soon the water was boiling; and before long steam filled the interior of the wash-tub, which was removed at the end of half an hour, when the hurdle was lifted off the copper with the turbot done to a turn, very white and splendid to behold.
Brillat-Savarin remarks that the excellence of the dish should have caused no surprise, since the fish had lost none of its good qualities, as it would have done if immersed in boiling water, but had on the other hand fully absorbed the flavours of the various seasonings.