Quite the catch …

travfoodmenu-fishing2TRAVELLING chef Philippa Davis has been off to Scotland again, this time to the Highlands to cook for a salmon fishing week on the River Findhorn – lots of big breakfasts, afternoon teas, help yourself suppers and best of all barbecues by the river …

“OH, it’s easy to find, you can’t miss it !” my client called from the Landy Defender as they headed off to the river.

So I jammed the trusty old Range Rover to the brim with boxes, bags of charcoal and food supplies and headed to the “middle beat fishing hut” – wherever it may be (for you non -fishing folks a “beat” is a part of a river you fish). On the up-side I knew that it was going to be by the river; what worried me was getting lost in part of the 70 000 acres of estate I had to drive through to get there and then possibly not being found till the grouse season started in August!

I found the hut, unloaded the kit, laid the table, set up my outdoor kitchen and fired up the barbecue. As I was in Scotland of course it started raining as soon as I had struck my first match, then it got a little windy and then to my delight/relief the sun came out.

On the first few days nothing was caught so I ended up cooking lots of meat on the coals; chicken marinated in thyme and lemon, pigeon with zataar and lime, Gressingham duck breasts with just with a sprinkling of salt. All delicious but no fish!

On day three spirits were still high amongst the group, despite the changeable weather and lack of salmon. I began to feel I was more keen for them to catch one then they were. I even briefly considered going on strike until they had but then, with the intervention of St Peter, the skill of the fisherman and with help from the ghillie (a knowledgeable attendant to the fisherman) the group triumphantly brought back that night to the kitchen two silver beauties.

Wild Scottish salmon really are quite extraordinary creatures and have the most challenging of lives and seemingly endless name changes. They start as one of around 7,000 eggs laid by the “hen” salmon deep in river-bed gravel – 90 per cent of these generally survive and once hatched they are called “Alevins”. Born with their own packed-lunch (a yolk-sack), they lurk in the gravel for a few weeks then once ready start to fend for themselves. Sadly with limited feeding grounds and a lot of competition at this point only about 10 per cent make it to the next stage.

travfoodmenu-fishing4The fighting few that survive (now called “Parr”) spend a year or two in the river but with threats of summer droughts and/or floods they still haven’t hit easy street. After a couple of years, come spring-time some of the larger fish that have made it start drifting out towards the sea and, you guessed it, change their name once more and now answer to “Smolt”. The smolts travel in shoals and as they reach the estuary they are often picked off by predators or fall victim to human pollution.

Those that make it to the sea for their first winter are obviously not called salmon as that would make it far too easy – no, they are called “Grilse”. Our British Grilse can be found anywhere from the Faroes to Greenland so it’s no wonder they build up an appetite and can double in size. The 10 per cent that survive their sea voyage then start to swim back to the river (cleverly very close to where they hatched as eggs) in order to do some breeding of their own and are called….Salmon !

Spawning generally takes place from October to January. Once back in the river the fish do not eat at all and they start to lose their knight-like silver and develop a colourful breeding dress (pinks and red ARE the new silver for these guys). Once a fish has spawned it’s called a “Kelt” (come on, keep up!). They look really thin and are not allowed to be taken from the river.

If the salmon survives all this (though few do) it will head back out to sea and bravely attempt the same routine again the next year.

As you can imagine with this precarious lifestyle their numbers are not huge so, as with many country pursuits, there is much etiquette and rules to abide by, which I shall delve into in my next article.

Barbecued salmon with grilled lettuce and salsa verde.

A few years back I cooked for a fishing week (much further up north) – when they came back with their first salmon the triumphant fisherman reluctantly handed it over to me.

“Please don’t do too much to it.” They then proceeded to hover around the stove while I prepared supper.

I totally agree that when the salmon is this good very little should be done – some heat and a wedge of lemon at most. I also think when it’s really good it works best served medium rare, so if you are lucky enough to get some wild salmon don’t be too keen to cook it completely through.

Prepare the barbecue so it’s hot , the coals have gone grey and the grills are clean.

travfood-fishingGrilled salmon

Salmon, allow about 200g per portion
Maldon salt
Olive oil

Check the salmon has been properly descaled and that any bones have been removed (a pair of tweezers works perfectly for this job).

Season with a pinch of salt and brush lightly with olive oil (salmon is naturally fatty so doesn’t need too much cooking fat). Grill skin-side down first and only turn once the skin lifts off the grill.

Best served medium rare and by the river it was caught from!

Grilled lettuce and hallumi

You can try grilling most lettuce but for this lunch I used baby gem (frisee, romaine, iceberg and even rocket – when kept on its root also work well).

Baby gem, allow half per person
Olive oil
Pinch of red chilli flakes

Wash and dry the lettuce. Cut in half and sprinkle with salt, pepper and a small drizzle of olive oil. On a hot grill cook on all sides till slightly blackened and starting to wilt (a couple of minutes). Remove from the heat and serve warm with a squeeze over some lemon and a sprinkling of chilli flakes.

Salsa verde

I really think this is the best sauce with this fish as the tangy acidity pairs particularly well with the fatty rich salmon.

1 big bunch of flat leaf parsley (about 30g) washed and dried
1 tbs tiny capers from brine
5 salted anchovies fillets, rinsed and bones removed
2 tsp mustard
5 tbs olive oil
Juice from half a lemon

travfoodmenu-fishing3Finely chop the parsley and pop into a bowl. Add the mustard, capers and anchovies and mix. Stir in the olive oil and finally the lemon and some pepper. Check for seasoning but as anchovies and capers are salty it generally doesn’t need much.

Having had much fun on the river all week, learnt a lot and barbecued practically everything I can think of I have waved good bye to my clients. I am now changing beats to cook for another fishing week but this time turning my attentions to packed lunches.

For more of Philippa’s postcard recipes visit www.philippadavis.com