It’s always a joy and a pleasure to attend a River Cottage course, and this one had come up as a special offer. It would have been rude not to. It’s been a while since I did any shore fishing, so that clinched it.
For the first time, Jean didn’t join me on the course, but instead opted to explore the local area. That was OK, but as you’ll see, caused me pangs of guilt later in the day.
The morning was spent fishing on part of the Chesil Beach at West Bexington. The weather, as you can see from the picture, was literally too perfect. Clear blue skies, calm clear water, pleasantly warm … NOT fish feeding conditions at all! So I’m afraid that none of us caught so much as a mackerel. We saw a large jellyfish patrolling inshore, but that was it. Even the gulls were having a lean day.
It wasn’t wasted, though. I was brought up on traditional English beach fishing tackle, meaning fairly heavy-duty rods intended for multiplier reels. They need a lot of technique to cast well, and it’s only too easy to end up with a “bird’s nest” of line which takes an age to sort out. I never mastered it properly, but on a good day I wasn’t too disgraceful.
Sean (on the right) was our River Cottage tutor, assisted by a couple of experts from The Tackle Box. We were introduced to the use of so-called Continental rods, which use fixed spool reels and are much easier to manage. Almost from the start, we could all achieve respectable distances. We cast and retrieved mackerel feathers until we were exhausted (I wimped out relatively early, I’m afraid), then went on to try to tempt some bream with rag and lug. It was great fun in spite of the frustrating lack of bites.
Then back to River Cottage HQ for an afternoon of learning how to prepare the fish.
Matt was our tutor for this second half, and while we waited for everyone to arrive (there had been a serious traffic jam on our route) he showed us round the River Cottage garden. I’ve posted pictures of the garden before, but you always learn something new.
We’ll be making some pea-growing wigwams like that next year!
River Cottage fortunately had some fish set aside for us to work on. A beautiful bass for each of us, plus a fine pollack and a plaice for Matt to demo.
We started by scaling the bass, learning how to hold the sharp blade of the filleting knife perpendicular to the fish and to lightly scrape the scales. We went outside for this exercise: the copious amount of flying scales landing in the grass rather than on the farmhouse floor.
Then on to gutting, filleting and skinning. I’m afraid that after so many operations, my practice fillet began to look a bit raggedy, but Matt was an excellent tutor and demonstrator. After he’d filleted the pollack, he showed us you to hot smoke it over oak chips. We have the technology to do that, so I might have a go at it in the Weber.
It wouldn’t be River Cottage without loads of excellent food, so as we were working on our fish, Matt prepared a ceviche both in the traditional way with lemon juice (pictured) and with a kimchi pickle, using the bass. It received rave reviews.
Then one he prepared earlier, which was a mackerel paté with capers, served on little crisp French toasts.
But this was just an introduction to what was to come. After we’d finished our (not very onerous) work, we were treated to a fabulous late lunch/early supper. And this is where I began to feel really guilty. Jean would have absolutely loved what was served. And here I was, hogging it all.
The trimmings from the fish were roasted and by some magic of Matt’s own making turned into the deepest flavoured fish consommé imaginable.
Then the smoked pollack made an appearance, served with beautifully flavoured crème fraîche.
But for me the masterpiece was the main course, showing all the River Cottage qualities of fresh local organic materials. Fillets of bass and plaice, perfectly fried, with in the centre lentils with a cheese dressing, on top of which was placed a softly poached egg. Around the dish were thin slices of courgette, cherry tomatoes, and a nasturtium leaf sauce. And on the side a roast pepper.
Gross though I know it was, I used my bread to mop the plate clean. Delectable.
Finally, a perfect pud to finish. A panna cotta, set with carragheen, with a roast fig, fresh raspberries and a scoop of fig and red wine sorbet.
Huge thanks to Sean and to Matt. They made it a great day.