The Fishmongers’ Company, London

January 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

A couple of days ago, I had the occasion to go on a quick, private tour of the Fishmongers’ Company, one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the City of London. The Hall, built in 1837 after a relocation from down the river, sits on the edge of the Thames, bordering the London Bridge. At its origins one of the original trade guilds of London, dating back about 700 years, the Company once controlled the entirety of the city’s fish trade, from who could sell fish to at which markets fish could be sold. Despite losing their monopoly on the fish trade in the fifteenth century, the Fishmongers’ Company still functions as an exclusive club of members — not much unlike the original “members” of the fish trade — and works to ensure the quality of fish that reaches the city’s market. For instance, the Company is responsible for carrying out proceedings against the sale of bad fish under the 1955 Food and Drugs Act and prosecutes offenders of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Acts while holding other sanctuary powers relating to sustainable fishing and food hygiene regulations.

The walls of the Hall are lined with the coats of arms of the Company’s past Prime Warrens (Chairmen). Most come from families with their own coat of arms but the occasional Chairman appointed without such will have one made for the occasion. The top level boasts a series of dining and sitting rooms, tastefully decorated in early Victorian style with later Regency tones, with delicate gilding and old paintings displaying open oysters and still lifes of the day’s catch. The Banquet Hall, which can seat up to 220 people, also boasts the famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which has appeared on many postage stamps since Pietro Annigoni painted it in 1956. In the following room hangs the 1752 chandelier made of pure silver, which must be cleaned on a yearly basis. The dining rooms host lunches and dinners, catered by the award-winning Executive Head Chef Stephen Pini. Going downstairs, we find the dagger, with which Lord Mayor Walworth is said to have killed Wat Tyler in 1381, though this has recently been called into question by historians who say that the dagger, which comes in two separate parts, was actually made later.

Formerly located by the busy fish market of Billingsgate Wharf — the market has since moved to New Billingsgate market by Canary Wharf — the Company works with schools, offers scholarships and draws together NGO sustainability campaigns to create a cohesive, neutral plan for the future of fishing. Most recently, the Company has become involved in eel fishing sustainability. But sustainable fishing isn’t the only plan the Company has for a healthier future. A tour of the building comes with a booklet on healthy eating by Stephen Pini on — you guessed it — deep-fried fish and chips. Offering a wide variety of fish, batters, sauces and methods of cutting and frying potatoes, the book gives a fresh take on the traditional pub fare.

Trying out some of the book’s flavor combinations, I chose to make a local halibut battered in cornmeal, Parmesan and chili. I flash seared the halibut in a cast iron skillet to get a crispy exterior then baked the middle of the fish through in the oven. For someone who fears making anything but cookies (and cakes, and pies and…well that could go on forever yeah?), I’d say making dinner is quite an accomplishment.

Also, did you know 2010 was the 150th anniversary of fish and chips? Well it was.

Changing seasons and a fall cookie

September 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

I think it is finally fall over here; the skies are overcast, it drizzles occasionally and I’m huddled up in my apartment in wool socks because I’m sick. Lovely. In fact I think we have skipped fall altogether and gone straight to winter. Which is unfortunate, because fall happens to be my favorite season of the year. I love walking to the crunch of the leaves underfoot, swerving a bit out of my way to make sure I step on that leaf that looks particularly brittle, breaking out my vast collection of scarves, which could probably represent every country I have ever been to, and bursting into the house on a really windy day, feeling that first initial blast of warm air on your face, and then the opposite cold burst when you step outside again. Back home, it means street blocks turn into pumpkin patches full of straw mazes and colorful pumpkins and squash every shade of orange, yellow and purple. Local coffeeshops start serving their seasonal flavored lattes — the cinnamon, the pumpkin which gradually merge into the peppermint and eggnog flavors of the holiday season. Cakes become denser, most fresh fruits slowly disappearing from the table to be replaced with spices and caramels.

But fall doesn’t seem to be much of a season over here. Indeed, as I spent the weekend in London, I toured various displays of Christmas trees, snowy animal decorations and hundreds of sets of Christmas china and ornaments. Glitter of every color seemed to sparkle in the windows of the department stores. Churches beckoned people dressed in their best clothes inside on Sunday morning, as we took a stroll along the Thames. For me, fall has a bit of a rustic charm, the charm of things changing, but that intermittent period where you aren’t quite sure where the change is leading. And when your surroundings are changing so dramatically, you long for your food to bring the warmth and comfort that you had taken for granted all around you during the summer. Fall is above all else a time for the homemade, a time for the nostalgic, a time for incorporating the warm with the simple.

The September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mandy of “What the Fruitcake?!” Mandy challenged everyone to make Decorated Sugar Cookies based on recipes from Peggy Porschen and The Joy of Baking. The challenge was to made decorated sugar cookies with the theme of September. We were provided with a recipe for sugar cookies and a recipe for royal icing. I chose to make mostly bells, as the church bells have played a major part in my life this September. I live and go to school right by Notre Dame so my day passes according to the ringing of the church bells — once at the demi-heure and then according to the time on the hour. Sticking to the theme that baking in fall months ought to be warm and rustic — aided along by the fact that I simply could not find food coloring at any French supermarket — I decorated my church bells with dulce de leche instead of royal icing. I would love to decorate with royal icing one day, perhaps around Christmas.

Basic Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Peggy Porschen:
Makes Approximately 36x 10cm / 4″ Cookies

200g / 7oz / ½ cup + 6 Tbsp Unsalted Butter, at room temperature

400g / 14oz / 3 cups + 3 Tbsp All Purpose / Plain Flour

200g / 7oz / 1 cup Caster Sugar / Superfine Sugar

1 Large Egg, lightly beaten

5ml / 1 tsp Vanilla Extract / Or seeds from 1 vanilla bean

Cream together the butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in the egg until well combined. Add the sifted flour and mix until a sticky dough forms.

Knead into a ball and divide into 2 or 3 pieces. Roll out each portion between parchment paper to a thickness of about 5mm/1/5 inch (0.2 inch). Refrigerate for a minimum of 30mins. Once chilled, peel off parchment and place dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters. Arrange shapes on parchment lined baking sheets and refrigerate for another 30mins to an hour. Preheat oven to 180°C / 350°F . Bake until golden around the edges, about 8-15mins depending on the size of the cookies. Leave to cool on cooling racks. Once completely cooled, decorate as desired.

Decorate with Dulce de Leche
By David Lebovitz

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