Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 12 - On the pitfalls of buying a carp for Christmas

It’s across the Atlantic to the UK for this piece by another first-time contributor to the series, Margaret of the blog Balt in the box room. Please welcome Margaret, and enjoy her Christmas fish tale…

This post was first published on the blog Balt in the box room.

On the pitfalls of buying a carp for Christmas

The carp is a dirty fish, or so my French friends tell me. It is a bottom feeder, lurking deep in the debris and mud at the bottom of the lake and eating the residue there. The French say it is inedible- It tastes of mud and muck. However Eastern Europeans would disagree. Keep it alive in fresh water for three days or so, they say, to allow the mud to be flushed through its fishy entrails and the carp will miraculously taste fresh and sweet. Thus the Daily Mail regularly runs stories throughout December about Polish plumbers poaching carp from local lakes in the UK and keeping their catch (not their coal) in the bath. Sounds plausible, eh? It seems that my grandmother and her grandmother before her had mastered the art of carp cuisine. Carp regularly features in all the cookbooks as a dish enjoyed throughout Europe at Christmas time. Well we had had a carp at Christmas this year and sadly it did not live up to the high expectations we had assigned to it. Scraping the not so insubstantial remains of the carp onto the cats’ plate at midnight on Christmas Eve I vowed that this would be a once-in a life-time experiment.

That small fish- a mere £4.50 had cost me dearly in time and effort and remained virtually intact on the table at the end of our Kūčios meal. I understand that the tradition is apparently that you give the left-overs of the Kūčios meal to the farm animals. The cats refused the carp, turning up their noses and sitting insistently by the cupboard waiting for Whiskas. Even the urban foxes eschewed the fish, preferring instead to rummage in our dustbin in search of something better. No, never again…… this is one custom I will not be passing down to my children.

Competitive culinary sourcing was to blame. When my brother-in-law threw down the gauntlet by announcing that the turkey on Christmas day had to be sourced from Smithfield market, my husband could not resist the challenge. He decided that the fish we were to eat had to come from Billingsgate and obviously this would involve getting there at 4.30 am, thus ensuring that all in the house were woken by his early departure. The salmon I had asked for was duly purchased (with head, though thankfully gutted) but he apparently could not resist the slimy brown carp on the slab and brought it home triumphantly double wrapped in two bin bags. He then thoughtfully woke us up again on his return as he noisily struggled to rearrange the fridge to accommodate his purchases.

My first problem with the carp was that it had not been gutted. “Couldn’t you have asked the fishmonger,” I asked him? He shrugged, and my daughter, who had accompanied him on his early morning mission giggled nervously. Obviously the thrill of sourcing- yes that word again- the carp had overtaken him in the market and he had not thought to ask. Wisely he made himself scarce, claiming he had errands to run, and squeamishly I did the deed. For a small fish there was an awful lot of gunk and blood, mud perhaps???- I washed down the small ugly brute and searched in vain for a recipe, just the thing on the morning of Christmas Eve when you have eleven other dishes to prepare.

It seems you need an awful lot of things to make carp taste good. Polish beer, juniper berries, allspice berries, lemons, sauerkraut, garlic…..the list was endless. The fish only cost £4.50- I estimated that I would need to spend at least £10 on extras to make the recipe and that on Christmas Eve when the shops were heaving and everything was upside down.

So I did the best I could with bits that I had. At lunchtime I wrapped it in foil and shoved it in the oven, continuing all the while to wash the carp’s blood and entrails down the sink as I waited for the transformation…

And the result? Of course they were all polite about it, all keen to try. No one expressed any enthusiasm for it though, and the poor carp lay neglected on its side whilst we discussed the suppliers of the various herring dishes. At the end of the meal it lay barely touched in its dish.

Could I blame them? Of course not dear reader, for I myself could barely manage a mouthful. Should you ask me now what the carp tasted of I will have to be honest. The flesh has a flabby, watery texture which does not excite the palate and the flavour………well let’s just say that I know now why carp is not eaten in France – haven’t we all made and tasted mudpies as children? Let’s just say it was a Proustian moment.

Just a footnote to add that Mr. D has over the years been a valiant supporter when it comes to Kūčios! Not many Englishmen would drive all over East London for herrings… or sample them for that matter!

Thank you Margaret for joining us on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! I'm amused, as carp is popular here in the southeast (US) where we live; however, I've never tried to prepare it, and having read this, I might put it off for a few more years... 

Margaret Drummond comes from a Dutch/Lithuanian family and has spent most of her life in the UK. Now retired, she taught languages for many years in London secondary schools. She writes articles and short fiction for various national and local publications, and sometimes blogs as Balt in the box room. She is especially interested in how nationalities and cultures merge and adapt in a changing world. She lives in London with her family.

Please join us tomorrow on Day 13 of a Baltic Christmas as we pull the log with Banuta!

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