Poached turbot with hollandaise sauce

Fishmongers are another of Soho’s disappearing assets. This is very true of other areas in Britain as well, but somehow the loss seems greater here because the past situation was so different. Up until the 1970s there were four shops selling fish: Bacrac’s in Livonia Street (never very good and mainly dealing with the then flourishing Jewish fish and chip trade), Myall’s in Romilly Street (good wholesale fishmongers and game dealers, but would sell to the public), Hamburger Products in Brewer Street (smoked and cured fish, discussed at some length), and the best of all, Richard’s next door. Richard’s, until their lease ran out, was the perfect retail fishmonger, open-fronted with a huge slab covered in an amazing array of seafood. The ethnic diversity of Soho kept them on their toes: fussy elderly French or Italian harridans loudly demanded and generally got good quality, coupled with fair prices. They were real fishmongers in that they expected you to ask for your fish whole and then they would scale, gut, fillet or steak it for you with no hint of a moan about difficult customers. At least half an hour needed to be set aside for a visit as there was always a healthy queue, and Fridays were simply impossible. They were still doing good business when a greedy landlord upped the rent too much and, demoralised, they moved to horrible premises down the road, losing somehow all their magic in the shift. Richard’s finally gave up and shut for good in 1996.

This paragon of fishmongers could always be relied on to have that king of fish, a turbot, sitting majestically on their slab, from which they would cut a steak or two to your exact specifications. Turbot poached on the bone is possibly the most flavoursome of all the North Atlantic fish, the bones lending the flesh a gelatinous savour more reminiscent of meat than fish. In an ideal world the best way to poach turbot is to cook it whole, but in the absence in your kitchen of a turbotière (an enormous diamond-shaped copper fish kettle, costing several hundred pounds and the one piece of kitchen kit that I really covet), this is plainly impossible, although several authors, including Brillat-Savarin, have suggested ingenious if unwieldy alternatives.

Turbot is now farmed, indeed the last time I bought fish from Richard’s it was one of these (for a fussy guest who didn’t like anything on my menu). Frankly it was disappointing, looking perfect, but tasting rather insipid, not something turbot can normally be accused of. So splash out and buy large steaks of wild turbot, make a proper court-bouillon, peel your new potatoes and rediscover the joys of hollandaise sauce. This is one of the truly great dishes of the world.

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Ingredients

  • 4 turbot steaks, 350 g each, preferably cut from a large fish
  • 1 kg new potatoes, thoroughly scrubbed or peeled and freshly boiled
  • recipe Hollandaise Sauce

Court-Bouillon

  • 250 ml dry white wine
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and sliced into thin circles
  • 1 onion peeled and cut into thin rings
  • 1 celery stalk, strings removed, cut into batons
  • 2 sprigs parsley
  • 1 tbsp sea salt
  • 4 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 litres water

Method

Making the Court-Bouillon

Put all the court-bouillon ingredients in a large wide pan (big enough to accommodate the turbot in a single layer: a deep flameproof roasting dish is probably best). Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Use immediately, or allow to cool and refrigerate until needed. Do not omit or reduce the salt. At this point start making the hollandaise sauce.

Cooking the Turbot

Bring the court-bouillon to a slow but steady simmer, barely bubbling around the edges (the French refer to this temperature as shivering, which is as good a description as any). Lower the turbot in and poach until done. Exactly how long this will take is impossible to say because a great deal depends on the thickness of the fish: assume 15 minutes, then start checking. You can tell the fish is cooked when its flesh has shrunk, the bones around the edge are starting to protrude and the central bone begins to separate from the surrounding meat. Gentle prodding with a fork should elicit this information.

Serving

Carefully lift the fish out of its liquor and put to drain on a plate. (Traditionally this was done on a freshly laundered tea towel.) Scoop some of the vegetables out of the court-bouillon, avoiding or picking out the bay and peppercorns, and arrange these on a serving dish to form a bed for the fish. Even more carefully, transfer the turbot to this bed and pour a little hollandaise around. Serve with lots of freshly boiled peeled new potatoes and offer the rest of the sauce on the side.

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