The Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton

Chapter VII.

Fish.

The Natural History of Fishes.

199. IN NATURAL HISTORY, FISHES form the fourth class in the system of Linnaeus, and are described as having long under-jaws, eggs without white, organs of sense, fins for supporters, bodies covered with concave scales, gills to supply the place of lungs for respiration, and water for the natural element of their existence. Had mankind no other knowledge of animals than of such as inhabit the land and breathe their own atmosphere, they would listen with incredulous wonder, if told that there were other kinds of beings which existed only in the waters, and which would die almost as soon as they were taken from them. However strongly these facts might be attested, they would hardly believe them, without the operation of their own senses, as they would recollect the effect produced on their own bodies when immersed in water, and the impossibility of their sustaining life in it for any lengthened period of time. Experience, however, has taught them, that the “great deep” is crowded with inhabitants of various sizes, and of vastly different constructions, with modes of life entirely distinct from those which belong to the animals of the land, and with peculiarities of design, equally wonderful with those of any other works which have come from the hand of the Creator. The history of these races, however, must remain for ever, more or less, in a state of darkness, since the depths in which they live, are beyond the power of human exploration, and since the illimitable expansion of their domain places them almost entirely out of the reach of human accessibility.

200. IN STUDYING THE CONFORMATION OF FISHES, we naturally conclude that they are, in every respect, well adapted to the element in which they have their existence. Their shape has a striking resemblance to the lower part of a ship; and there is no doubt that the form of the fish originally suggested the form of the ship. The body is in general slender, gradually diminishing towards each of its extremities, and flattened on each of its sides. This is precisely the form of the lower part of the hull of a ship; and it enables both the animal and the vessel, with comparative ease, to penetrate and divide the resisting medium for which they have been adapted. The velocity of a ship, however, in sailing before the wind, is by no means to be compared to that of a fish. It is well known that the largest fishes will, with the greatest ease, overtake a ship in full sail, play round it without effort, and shoot ahead of it at pleasure. This arises from their great flexibility, which, to compete with mocks the labours of art, and enables them to migrate thousands of miles in a season, without the slightest indications of languor or fatigue.

201. THE PRINCIPAL INSTRUMENTS EMPLOYED BY FISHES to accelerate their motion, are their air-bladder, fins, and tail. By means of the air-bladder they enlarge or diminish the specific gravity of their bodies. When they wish to sink, they compress the muscles of the abdomen, and eject the air contained in it; by which, their weight, compared with that of the water, is increased, and they consequently descend. On the other hand, when they wish to rise, they relax the compression of the abdominal muscles, when the air-bladder fills and distends, and the body immediately ascends to the surface. How simply, yet how wonderfully, has the Supreme Being adapted certain means to the attainment of certain ends! Those fishes which are destitute of the air-bladder are heavy in the water, and have no great “alacrity” in rising. The larger proportion of them remain at the bottom, unless they are so formed as to be able to strike their native element downwards with sufficient force to enable them to ascend. When the air-bladder of a fish is burst, its power of ascending to the surface has for ever passed away. From a knowledge of this fact, the fishermen of cod are enabled to preserve them alive for a considerable time in their well-boats. The means they adopt to accomplish this, is to perforate the sound, or air-bladder, with a needle, which disengages the air, when the fishes immediately descend to the bottom of the well, into which they are thrown. Without this operation, it would be impossible to keep the cod under water whilst they had life. In swimming, the fins enable fishes to preserve their upright position, especially those of the belly, which act like two feet. Without those, they would swim with their bellies upward, as it is in their backs that the centre of gravity lies. In ascending and descending, these are likewise of great assistance, as they contract and expand accordingly. The tail is an instrument of great muscular force, and largely assists the fish in all its motions. In some instances it acts like the rudder of a ship, and enables it to turn sideways; and when moved from side to side with a quick vibratory motion, fishes are made, in the same manner as the “screw” propeller makes a steamship, to dart forward with a celerity proportioned to the muscular force with which it is employed.

202. THE BODIES OF FISHES are mostly covered with a kind of horny scales; but some are almost entirely without them, or have them so minute as to be almost invisible; as is the case with the eel. The object of these is to preserve them from injury by the pressure of the water, or the sudden contact with pebbles, rocks, or sea-weeds. Others, again, are enveloped in a fatty, oleaginous substance, also intended as a defence against the friction of the water; and those in which the scales are small, are supplied with a larger quantity of slimy matter.

203. THE RESPIRATION OF FISHES is effected by means of those comb-like organs which are placed on each side of the neck, and which are called gills. It is curious to watch the process of breathing as it is performed by the finny tribes. It seems to be so continuous, that it might almost pass for an illustration of the vexed problem which conceals the secret of perpetual motion. In performing it, they fill their mouths with water, which they drive backwards with a force so great as to open the large flap, to allow it to escape behind. In this operation all, or a great portion, of the air contained in the water, is left among the feather-like processes of the gills, and is carried into the body, there to perform its part in the animal economy. In proof of this, it has been ascertained that, if the water in which fishes are put, is, by any means, denuded of its air, they immediately seek the surface, and begin to gasp for it. Hence, distilled water is to them what a vacuum made by an air-pump, is to most other animals. For this reason, when a fishpond, or other aqueous receptacle in which fishes are kept, is entirely frozen over, it is necessary to make holes in the ice, not so especially for the purpose of feeding them, as for that of giving them air to breathe.

204. THE POSITIONS OF THE TEETH OF FISHES are well calculated to excite our amazement; for, in some cases, these are situated in the jaws, sometimes on the tongue or palate, and sometimes even in the throat. They are in general sharp-pointed and immovable; but in the carp they are obtuse, and in the pike so easily moved as to seem to have no deeper hold than such as the mere skin can afford. In the herring, the tongue is set with teeth, to enable it the better, it is supposed, to retain its food.

205. ALTHOUGH NATURALISTS HAVE DIVIDED FISHES into two great tribes, the osseous and the cartilaginous, yet the distinction is not very precise; for the first have a great deal of cartilage, and the second, at any rate, a portion of calcareous matter in their bones. It may, therefore, be said that the bones of fishes form a kind of intermediate substance between true bones and cartilages. The backbone extends through the whole length of the body, and consists of vertebrae, strong and thick towards the head, but weaker and more slender as it approaches the tail. Each species has a determinate number of vertebrae, which are increased in size in proportion with the body. The ribs are attached to the processes of the vertebrae, and inclose the breast and abdomen. Some kinds, as the rays, have no ribs; whilst others, as the sturgeon and eel, have very short ones. Between the pointed processes of the vertebrae are situated the bones which support the dorsal (back) and the anal (below the tail) fins, which are connected with the processes by a ligament. At the breast are the sternum or breastbone, clavicles or collar-bones, and the scapulae or shoulder-blades, on which the pectoral or breast fins are placed. The bones which support the ventral or belly fins are called the ossa pelvis. Besides these principal bones, there are often other smaller ones, placed between the muscles to assist their motion.

206. SOME OF THE ORGANS OF SENSE IN FISHES are supposed to be possessed by them in a high degree, and others much more imperfectly. Of the latter kind are the senses of touch and taste, which are believed to be very slightly developed. On the other hand, those of hearing, seeing, and smelling, are ascertained to be acute, but the first in a lesser degree than both the second and third. Their possession of an auditory organ was long doubted, and even denied by some physiologists; but it has been found placed on the sides of the skull, or in the cavity which contains the brain. It occupies a position entirely distinct and detached from the skull, and, in this respect, differs in the local disposition of the same sense in birds and quadrupeds. In some fishes, as in those of the ray kind, the organ is wholly encompassed by those parts which contain the cavity of the skull; whilst in the cod and salmon kind it is in the part within the skull. Its structure is, in every way, much more simple than that of the same sense in those animals which live entirely in the air; but there is no doubt that they have the adaptation suitable to their condition. In some genera, as in the rays, the external orifice or ear is very small, and is placed in the upper surface of the head; whilst in others there is no visible external orifice whatever. However perfect the sight of fishes may be, experience has shown that this sense is of much less use to them than that of smelling, in searching for their food. The optic nerves in fishes have this peculiarity — that they are not confounded with one another in their middle progress between their origin and their orbit. The one passes over the other without any communication; so that the nerve which comes from the left side of the brain goes distinctly to the right eye, and that which comes from the right goes distinctly to the left. In the greater part of them, the eye is covered with the same transparent skin that covers the rest of the head. The object of this arrangement, perhaps, is to defend it from the action of the water, as there are no eyelids. The globe in front is somewhat depressed, and is furnished behind with a muscle, which serves to lengthen or flatten it, according to the necessities of the animal. The crystalline humour, which in quadrupeds is flattened, is, in fishes, nearly globular. The organ of smelling in fishes is large, and is endued, at its entry, with a dilating and contracting power, which is employed as the wants of the animal may require. It is mostly by the acuteness of their smell that fishes are enabled to discover their food; for their tongue is not designed for nice sensation, being of too firm a cartilaginous substance for this purpose.

207. WITH RESPECT TO THE FOOD OF FISHES, this is almost universally found in their own element. They are mostly carnivorous, though they seize upon almost anything that comes in their way: they even devour their own offspring, and manifest a particular predilection for all living creatures. Those, to which Nature has meted out mouths of the greatest capacity, would seem to pursue everything with life, and frequently engage in fierce conflicts with their prey. The animal with the largest mouth is usually the victor; and he has no sooner conquered his foe than he devours him. Innumerable shoals of one species pursue those of another, with a ferocity which draws them from the pole to the equator, through all the varying temperatures and depths of their boundless domain. In these pursuits a scene of universal violence is the result; and many species must have become extinct, had not Nature accurately proportioned the means of escape, the production, and the numbers, to the extent and variety of the danger to which they are exposed. Hence the smaller species are not only more numerous, but more productive than the larger; whilst their instinct leads them in search of food and safety near the shores, where, from the shallowness of the waters, many of their foes are unable to follow them.

208. THE FECUNDITY OF FISHES has been the wonder of every natural philosopher whose attention has been attracted to the subject. They are in general oviparous, or egg-producing; but there are a few, such as the eel and the blenny, which are viviparous, or produce their young alive. The males have the milt and the females the roe; but some individuals, as the sturgeon and the cod tribes, are said to contain both. The greater number deposit their spawn in the sand or gravel; but some of those which dwell in the depths of the ocean attach their eggs to sea-weeds. In every instance, however, their fruitfulness far surpasses that of any other race of animals. According to Lewenhoeck, the cod annually spawns upwards of nine millions of eggs, contained in a single roe. The flounder produces one million; the mackerel above five hundred thousand; a herring of a moderate size at least ten thousand; a carp fourteen inches in length, according to Petit, contained two hundred and sixty-two thousand two hundred and twenty-four; a perch deposited three hundred and eighty thousand six hundred and forty; and a female sturgeon seven millions six hundred and fifty-three thousand two hundred. The viviparous species are by no means so prolific; yet the blenny brings forth two or three hundred at a time, which commence sporting together round their parent the moment they have come into existence.

209. IN REFERENCE TO THE LONGEVITY OF FISHES, it is affirmed to surpass that of all other created beings; and it is supposed they are, to a great extent, exempted from the diseases to which the flesh of other animals is heir. In place of suffering from the rigidity of age, which is the cause of the natural decay of those that “live and move and have their being” on the land, their bodies continue to grow with each succeeding supply of food, and the conduits of life to perform their functions unimpaired. The age of fishes has not been properly ascertained, although it is believed that the most minute of the species has a longer lease of life than man. The mode in which they die has been noted by the Rev. Mr. White, the eminent naturalist of Selbourne. As soon as the fish sickens, the head sinks lower and lower, till the animal, as it were, stands upon it. After this, as it becomes weaker, it loses its poise, till the tail turns over, when it comes to the surface, and floats with its belly upwards. The reason for its floating in this manner is on account of the body being no longer balanced by the fins of the belly, and the broad muscular back preponderating, by its own gravity, over the belly, from this latter being a cavity, and consequently lighter.

210. FISHES ARE EITHER SOLITARY OR GREGARIOUS, and some of them migrate to great distances, and into certain rivers, to deposit their spawn. Of sea-fishes, the cod, herring, mackerel, and many others, assemble in immense shoals, and migrate through different tracts of the ocean; but, whether considered in their solitary or gregarious capacity, they are alike wonderful to all who look through Nature up to Nature’s God, and consider, with due humility, yet exalted admiration, the sublime variety, beauty, power, and grandeur of His productions, as manifested in the Creation.

Fish as an Article of Human Food.

211. AS THE NUTRITIVE PROPERTIES OF FISH are deemed inferior to those of what is called butchers’ meat, it would appear, from all we can learn, that, in all ages, it has held only a secondary place in the estimation of those who have considered the science of gastronomy as a large element in the happiness of mankind. Among the Jews of old it was very little used, although it seems not to have been entirely interdicted, as Moses prohibited only the use of such as had neither scales nor fins. The Egyptians, however, made fish an article of diet, notwithstanding that it was rejected by their priests. Egypt, however, is not a country favourable to the production of fish, although we read of the people, when hungry, eating it raw; of epicures among them having dried it in the sun; and of its being salted and preserved, to serve as a repast on days of great solemnity.

The modern Egyptians are, in general, extremely temperate in regard to food. Even the richest among them take little pride, and, perhaps, experience as little delight, in the luxuries of the table. Their dishes mostly consist of pilaus, soups, and stews, prepared principally of onions, cucumbers, and other cold vegetables, mixed with a little meat cut into small pieces. On special occasions, however, a whole sheep is placed on the festive board; but during several of the hottest months of the year, the richest restrict themselves entirely to a vegetable diet. The poor are contented with a little oil or sour milk, in which they may dip their bread.

212. PASSING FROM AFRICA TO EUROPE, we come amongst a people who have, almost from time immemorial, occupied a high place in the estimation of every civilized country; yet the Greeks, in their earlier ages, made very little use of fish as an article of diet. In the eyes of the heroes of Homer it had little favour; for Menelaus complained that “hunger pressed their digestive organs,” and they had been obliged to live upon fish. Subsequently, however, fish became one of the principal articles of diet amongst the Hellenes; and both Aristophanes and Athenaeus allude to it, and even satirize their countrymen for their excessive partiality to the turbot and mullet.

So infatuated were many of the Greek gastronomes with the love of fish, that some of them would have preferred death from indigestion to the relinquishment of the precious dainties with which a few of the species supplied them. Philoxenes of Cythera was one of these. On being informed by his physician that he was going to die of indigestion, on account of the quantity he was consuming of a delicious fish, “Be it so,” he calmly observed; “but before I die, let me finish the remainder.”

213. THE GEOGRAPHICAL SITUATION OF GREECE was highly favourable for the development of a taste for the piscatory tribes; and the skill of the Greek cooks was so great, that they could impart every variety of relish to the dish they were called upon to prepare. Athenaeus has transmitted to posterity some very important precepts upon their ingenuity in seasoning with salt, oil, and aromatics.

At the present day the food of the Greeks, through the combined influence of poverty and the long fasts which their religion imposes upon them, is, to a large extent, composed of fish, accompanied with vegetables and fruit. Caviare, prepared from the roes of sturgeons, is the national ragout, which, like all other fish dishes, they season with aromatic herbs. Snails dressed in garlic are also a favourite dish.

214. AS THE ROMANS, in a great measure, took their taste in the fine arts from the Greeks, so did they, in some measure, their piscine appetites. The eel-pout and the lotas’s liver were the favourite fish dishes of the Roman epicures; whilst the red mullet was esteemed as one of the most delicate fishes that could be brought to the table.

With all the elegance, taste, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity. In proof of this, the mention of the red mullet suggests the mode in which it was sometimes treated for the, to us, horrible entertainment of the fashionable in Roman circles. It may be premised, that as England has, Rome, in her palmy days, had, her fops, who had, no doubt, through the medium of their cooks, discovered that when the scales of the red mullet were removed, the flesh presented a fine pink-colour. Having discovered this, it was further observed that at the death of the animal, this colour passed through a succession of beautiful shades, and, in order that these might be witnessed and enjoyed in their fullest perfection, the poor mullet was served alive in a glass vessel.

215. THE LOVE OF FISH among the ancient Romans rose to a real mania. Apicius offered a prize to any one who could invent a new brine compounded of the liver of red mullets; and Lucullus had a canal cut through a mountain, in the neighbourhood of Naples, that fish might be the more easily transported to the gardens of his villa. Hortensius, the orator, wept over the death of a turbot which he had fed with his own hands; and the daughter of Druses adorned one that she had, with rings of gold. These were, surely, instances of misplaced affection; but there is no accounting for tastes. It was but the other day that we read in the “Times“ of a wealthy living English hermit, who delights in the companionship of rats!

The modern Romans are merged in the general name of Italians, who, with the exception of macaroni, have no specially characteristic article of food.

216. FROM ROME TO GAUL is, considering the means of modern locomotion, no great way; but the ancient sumptuary laws of that kingdom give us little information regarding the ichthyophagous propensities of its inhabitants. Louis XII. engaged six fishmongers to furnish his board with fresh-water animals, and Francis I. had twenty-two, whilst Henry the Great extended his requirements a little further, and had twenty-four. In the time of Louis XIV. the cooks had attained to such a degree of perfection in their art, that they could convert the form and flesh of the trout, pike, or carp, into the very shape and flavour of the most delicious game.

The French long enjoyed a European reputation for their skill and refinement in the preparing of food. In place of plain joints, French cookery delights in the marvels of what are called made dishes, ragouts, stews, and fricassees, in which no trace of the original materials of which they are compounded is to be found.

217. FROM GAUL WE CROSS TO BRITAIN, where it has been asserted, by, at least, one authority, that the ancient inhabitants ate no fish. However this may be, we know that the British shores, particularly those of the North Sea, have always been well supplied with the best kinds of fish, which we may reasonably infer was not unknown to the inhabitants, or likely to be lost upon them for the lack of knowledge as to how they tasted. By the time of Edward II., fish had, in England, become a dainty, especially the sturgeon, which was permitted to appear on no table but that of the king. In the fourteenth century, a decree of King John informs us that the people ate both seals and porpoises; whilst in the days of the Troubadours, whales were fished for and caught in the Mediterranean Sea, for the purpose of being used as human food.

Whatever checks the ancient British may have had upon their piscatory appetites, there are happily none of any great consequence upon the modern, who delight in wholesome food of every kind. Their taste is, perhaps, too much inclined to that which is accounted solid and substantial; but they really eat more moderately, even of animal food, than either the French or the Germans. Roast beef, or other viands cooked in the plainest manner, are, with them, a sufficient luxury; yet they delight in living well, whilst it is easy to prove how largely their affections are developed by even the prospect of a substantial cheer. In proof of this we will just observe, that if a great dinner is to be celebrated, it is not uncommon for the appointed stewards and committee to meet and have a preliminary dinner among themselves, in order to arrange the great one, and after that, to have another dinner to discharge the bill which the great one cost. This enjoyable disposition we take to form a very large item in the aggregate happiness of the nation.

218. THE GENERAL USE OF FISH, as an article of human food among civilized nations, we have thus sufficiently shown, and will conclude this portion of our subject with the following hints, which ought to be remembered by all those who are fond of occasionally varying their dietary with a piscine dish:—

I. Fish shortly before they spawn are, in general, best in condition. When the spawning is just over, they are out of season, and unfit for human food.

II. When fish is out of season, it has a transparent, bluish tinge, however much it may be boiled; when it is in season, its muscles are firm, and boil white and curdy.

III. As food for invalids, white fish, such as the ling, cod, haddock, coal-fish, and whiting, are the best; flat fish, as soles, skate, turbot, and flounders, are also good.

IV. Salmon, mackerel, herrings, and trout soon spoil or decompose after they are killed; therefore, to be in perfection, they should be prepared for the table on the day they are caught. With flat fish, this is not of such consequence, as they will keep longer. The turbot, for example, is improved by being kept a day or two.

General Directions for Dressing Fish.

219. IN DRESSING FISH, of any kind, the first point to be attended to, is to see that it be perfectly clean. It is a common error to wash it too much; as by doing so the flavour is diminished. If the fish is to be boiled, a little salt and vinegar should be put into the water, to give it firmness, after it is cleaned. Cod-fish, whiting, and haddock, are far better if a little salted, and kept a day; and if the weather be not very hot, they will be good for two days.

220. WHEN FISH IS CHEAP AND PLENTIFUL, and a larger quantity is purchased than is immediately wanted, the overplus of such as will bear it should be potted, or pickled, or salted, and hung up; or it may be fried, that it may serve for stewing the next day. Fresh-water fish, having frequently a muddy smell and taste, should be soaked in strong salt and water, after it has been well cleaned. If of a sufficient size, it may be scalded in salt and water, and afterwards dried and dressed.

221. FISH SHOULD BE PUT INTO COLD WATER, and set on the fire to do very gently, or the outside will break before the inner part is done. Unless the fishes are small, they should never be put into warm water; nor should water, either hot or cold, be poured on to the fish, as it is liable to break the skin: if it should be necessary to add a little water whilst the fish is cooking, it ought to be poured in gently at the side of the vessel. The fish-plate may be drawn up, to see if the fish be ready, which may be known by its easily separating from the bone. It should then be immediately taken out of the water, or it will become woolly. The fish-plate should be set crossways over the kettle, to keep hot for serving, and a clean cloth over the fish, to prevent its losing its colour.

222. IN GARNISHING FISH, great attention is required, and plenty of parsley, horseradish, and lemon should be used. If fried parsley be used, it must be washed and picked, and thrown into fresh water. When the lard or dripping boils, throw the parsley into it immediately from the water, and instantly it will be green and crisp, and must be taken up with a slice. When well done, and with very good sauce, fish is more appreciated than almost any other dish. The liver and roe, in some instances, should be placed on the dish, in order that they may be distributed in the course of serving; but to each recipe will be appended the proper mode of serving and garnishing.

223. IF FISH IS TO BE FRIED OR BROILED, it must be dried in a nice soft cloth, after it is well cleaned and washed. If for frying, brush it over with egg, and sprinkle it with some fine crumbs of bread. If done a second time with the egg and bread, the fish will look so much the better. If required to be very nice, a sheet of white blotting-paper must be placed to receive it, that it may be free from all grease. It must also be of a beautiful colour, and all the crumbs appear distinct. Butter gives a bad colour; lard and clarified dripping are most frequently used; but oil is the best, if the expense be no objection. The fish should be put into the lard when boiling, and there should be a sufficiency of this to cover it.

224. WHEN FISH IS BROILED, it must be seasoned, floured, and laid on a very clean gridiron, which, when hot, should be rubbed with a bit of suet, to prevent the fish from sticking. It must be broiled over a very clear fire, that it may not taste smoky; and not too near, that it may not be scorched.

225. IN CHOOSING FISH, it is well to remember that it is possible it may be fresh, and yet not good. Under the head of each particular fish in this work, are appended rules for its choice and the months when it is in season. Nothing can be of greater consequence to a cook than to have the fish good; as if this important course in a dinner does not give satisfaction, it is rarely that the repast goes off well.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31