“Bishops Restore Fish on Fridays” was how one national newspaper reported the decision of the Bishops of England and Wales to re-establish Friday abstinence from meat as the norm for all Catholics.
At the press conference following the bishops’ spring meeting, The Catholic Herald reporter’s well-informed questions about Summorum Pontificum notwithstanding, it was Friday abstinence that generated most interest from the ladies and gentlemen of the press. This came as a slight surprise to me, because in some measure “fish on Fridays” never really went away. I recall walking through Oxford many times surrounded by the unmistakable smell of fish and chips being extractor-fanned out of college kitchens on to the street; a menu replicated in countless other non-Catholic kitchens up and down the country. While the friars might have sat down to shepherd’s pie on a Friday night, their religious tradition had become embedded in the secular world as securely as hot-cross buns and the Easter lamb.
A great deal of what we know about the early English diet comes from a Latin vocabulary written by Ælfric, Archbishop of Canterbury from 995. It was written in the form of dialogues: with the baker, the ploughman, the fisherman, the shepherd. From it we know that in spring and summer women made cheese and butter from the milk of sheep or goats before smoking the cheese and salting the butter to preserve it.
In gardens, people grew carrots (purple in those days), leeks, garlic and herbs like rue and fennel. Kale was a popular winter vegetable and for a time gave February its Old English name of sproutkele. Ælfric lists animals eaten for their meat (pig, goat, deer, swan, duck etc), but the fact that our modern words beef, veal and mutton are Norma, rather than Anglo-Saxon suggests these animals were mostly valued for their wool, hides, milk and working abilities rather than their flesh.
The Rule of St Benedict stipulated that only sick monks could consume the “flesh of quadrupeds” but this was quickly interpreted as excluding fish and fowl, hence the monastic tradition of maintaining dovecotes and fishponds (stews). Bede railed against the excesses of the monastic table, circumventing not only the letter but increasingly the spirit of the Rule, and St Anselm complained that the clergy dined on “chicken spiced with pepper and cumin”. But fasting and abstinence shaped not only the culinary rhythm of the week (no meat on Fridays or Wednesdays) but also of the year (Advent, Lent, Ember Days). Unless you were very young, very old or very sick, meat was absent from the table for a considerable portion of the year.
For the poor this would have made little difference as meat was expensive, but for the remainder it was fish that filled the gap. Ælfric’s fisherman talks about his tackle and nets, of eels that could survive out of water and of freshwater fish such as roach, trout, lamprey, perch and pike. From the sea came salmon, plaice, porpoise, flounder, cod, lobster, oysters and more, but it was the herring which topped the list. It came first for the same reason that the pig headed the list of animals: because it could be preserved. An important character in Ælfric’s colloquies was the salter, plying his cart between the salt producing towns of Nantwich, Sandwich, Droitwich and Northwich. There can be little doubt that it was Friday abstinence that helped to create the medieval fishing industry, though whether one can attribute the discovery of America to it is another matter. What seems likely, however, is that fishermen pushing westwards in search of new fish stocks did provide navigational information that would have been of use to Christopher Columbus in his journey to the New World.
The influence of abstinence has been felt even more recently, though. The Filet-o-Fish sandwich was added to McDonalds’ menus in 1962 after Louis Groen, owner of the chain’s Cincinnati franchises, noticed that his restaurants experienced a sharp drop in sales every Friday. Even today, 25 per cent of the 300 million Filets-o-Fish sold annually in the US are during the 40 days of Lent.
Many campaigners have recently urged Catholics not to embrace fish with too much gusto as part of their Friday observance, pointing out that more than a few species of fish are dangerously depleted. Fish at the top of the food chain – shark, swordfish, tuna – are best avoided because not only are they endangered, they are also high in mercury. But some of the fish that are best for you, including anchovies, sardines and mackerel, are well managed and in some cases abundant. It seems clear, too, that sitting down to a steaming dish of Lobster Thermidor is hardly in the spirit of Friday abstinence, so perhaps now is the time to try less glamorous varieties (such as pollack, coley and whiting).
Yet, what we are asked to do is abstain from meat, not indulge in fish, and in England and Wales there is no need to rely on bizarre meat substitutes or seek to have ducks reclassified as fish; we can simply eat vegetables (though vegetarians and what Anthony Bourdain calls “their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans”, will have to find another form of abstinence). Nigel Slater’s recent two-volume paean to the vegetable garden, Tender, has more than enough vegetable recipes to keep most cooks going for a lifetime, and even the champion carnivore Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall claims to have been eating “a lot less meat”.
Abstaining from meat is a small gesture intended to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice; an absence of flesh on the dining table that leads us to recall the Lord’s gift of his own flesh on the Cross. It will occasionally be inconvenient, that’s the point, but it should always be joyful.
Fr Tim Gardner is a Dominican priest based in London
This is a dinner-party version of a dish that is known in parts of Lancashire as “Catholic Potato Pie” and serves about six with salad as a light main course.
Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Mix 200g grated strong cheese and 200ml crème frâiche. Line a greased and oiled pie dish or quiche tin (about 23cm) with two thirds of a 500g quantity of ready-made puff pastry or rough puff, leaving a slight overhang.
You will also need 1kg floury potatoes and two onions (all thinly sliced), a bunch of diced spring onions, paprika and nutmeg. Place a layer of potatoes in the dish, scatter over some onions and spring onions, a pinch of paprika and nutmeg and repeat. Spoon some of the crème frâiche and cheese mixture on top and repeat these layers until the potatoes are used up. Press the mixture down slightly and top with the remaining pastry.
Seal the edges, glaze with beaten egg and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the heat down to 170C/Gas 4 and continue cooking until the pie is golden brown (up to an hour). Leave to rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Root vegetable casserole
This versatile dish can often be made with what you have in the larder. Add tinned tomatoes, use different root vegetables or spice it up with some fresh chilli. Serves 4 with some yoghurt and flat-bread.
Gently cook a finely chopped onion and two cloves of garlic in a tablespoon of oil until soft (about 3 minutes). Add 700g potatoes, cut into chunks, 4 thickly sliced carrots and 2 diced parsnips. Cook (and stir!) until the vegetables begin to brown (about 8 minutes). Mix in 2 tablespoons of red curry paste and add 1 litre of vegetable stock (Marigold is excellent) and bring to the boil.
Tip in 150g of red lentils, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the sauce has thickened and the vegetables are tender. Stir in a bunch of chopped coriander just before serving.
Mackerel fish cakes
A good way to introduce oily fish to your family. These can be prepared a day ahead and freeze (uncooked) very well. Serves 4.
In a large bowl, combine 300g mashed potatoes, a bunch of thinly sliced spring onions, 2 tablespoons of horseradish sauce and 250g flaked mackerel fillets (either smoked or peppered). Shape into 8 cakes and coat in breadcrumbs (first coating in flour and then beaten egg).
Shallow fry for about 6 minutes each side until golden brown and piping hot throughout. Serve with a wedge of lemon and salad or steamed green vegetables.
It’s probably more accurate to think of this as a savoury rice pudding than a risotto, but its simplicity is somehow more appropriate for Friday than the classic version. Serves 4 (main) or 6 (starter).
Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas 2. Pour 550ml boiling water over 10g dried porcini mushrooms and leave to soak while you roughly chop 250g field mushrooms. In a heavy casserole, sweat a finely diced onion until transparent and stir in the chopped mushrooms. Drain the porcini, squeezing out and reserving the liquor. Chop finely and add to the pan, cooking gently for about 20 minutes.
Add 175g canaroli rice, 150ml dry Marsala or sherry and the reserved porcini liquor.
Season with salt and black pepper, place in the centre of the oven and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Then add a handful of grated Parmesan, stir well and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Serve immediately with shavings of parmesan and finely chopped fresh parsley.