"But even he drew the line at snoek" is a line taken from The Telegraph's (London) May 1, 2003 obituary of the legendary, "French-by-birth, English-by-adoption", chef and culinary authority Jean Conil (1917-2003).
For a few weeks I have been working out in my mind strategies for developing an essay/presentation about Conil's 1959 book, A Gastronomic Tour de France, a masterwork that until very recently had been staring down at me, unopened and unread, from various of my and my parents' bookshelves for nearly 50 years.
Success has so far eluded me. The book, handsomely published in London by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. in 1959 and in New York by Dutton in 1960, presents gracefully and economically in its scant (considering the range and complexity of its subject) 300 pages more useful information for the culinary visitor to France than I could have imagined possible before opening its pages. Conil simply addresses everything you might wish to know regarding every region and sub-region of France, i.e., regional political and social history; geography; agriculture; viticulture; art history; places of touristic interest, including restaurants, hotels and inns; and representative regional recipes, all in good and stimulating prose.
The book simulates a large-format photograph of France in the late 1950s seen through the particular lens of a man with a specialized genius, but a highly catholic point of view . Because the world has changed during the last half-century, its current usefulness as a "tour" may have dwindled. But I challenge anyone reading the book not to want to hop into the Way-Back Machine, setting the dial to, say Haute-Vienne (Marche),1959, to achieve their own, more genuine "Sputnik moment" than the sorry, ersatz article currently being peddled.
F & M
Jean Conil (1918-2003) was well-known in his adopted country as the man who (like his contemporary Elizabeth David) regarded the imaginatively impoverished state of British cuisine following World War II as a national "tragedy". A prominent chef and restauranteur (the Savoy Hotel, Le Caprice, Fortnum & Mason), caterer (the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II), journalist and television personality, The Telegraph observed when he passed away:
"It was not the ingredients that were the problem, he believed, but the way they were prepared. 'What we need is good chefs and a good cuisine', he argued. 'If Mr Atlee and Sir Stafford Cripps would eat a solid, well-cooked meal, perhaps they would find themselves better-equipped to discuss affairs of state. Good business and good diplomacy depend on good food'.
People tended to blame Britain's poor cuisine on rationing, but Conil maintained that good meals could be prepared with the most humble ingredients. 'Only take sausage meat, onions, parsley, carrots, peas, and some dried egg and you can turn out a meal fit for anyone'. . . . .But even he drew the line at snoek."
Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation, June 2, 1953
Portico of The Savoy, London
Until I read the Conil obituary, I had never heard of snoek, but I was immediately strongly motivated to learn what this most discriminating, but imaginative and tolerant, of culinary evangelists considered to be beneath consideration.
Because of the internet, wonder of our age, my research almost instantly yielded highly fascinating results about this important food fish, treasured by the residents of South Africa, from a variety of sources. Essentially, snoek's (the fish is a form of perch; the name is Afrikaans) terrible reputation in England is a legacy of World War II food rationing. The South African food blogger (resident in the UK ) and barrister CookSister writes: "During World War II, when everything was scarce, food rationing was rife, and cheap sources of protein were few and far between, somebody had the bright idea to catch cheap fish in South Africa, can it and ship it to England. Suffice it to say that it did not go down too well over here. The Web is full of war years recollections penned by people who remember this weird fish with the hugely amusing name arriving and being inedibly bad. A large proportion of the tins that were imported remained firmly on shop shelves (despite optimistic suggestions from the Ministry of Defence -- like Snoek Piquante, which seems to have become a kind of shorthand for everything unpalatable about food rationing."
Three aspects of World War II food rationing
CookSister goes on to say that: "For those of us in South Africa, it's a very different story. Snoek is one of the great culinary pleasures of the Western Cape (the province surrounding Cape Town. The flesh is oily and presumably packed with all the health benefits that oily fish brings; the meat is firm and strongly flavoured, rather like mackerel on steroids".
In South Africa, snoek is enjoyed either fresh, salted or smoked. Apparently it is marvelous cooked whole on the grill (or braii) or transformed into a pate, which is how it is most commonly served in restaurants, in the manner of smoked bluefish pate, which is more popular, I think, in the U.S., than bluefish eaten in other ways (something I'll never understand). At Cape Town airport, sides of smoked snoek are available for purchase in the same way that you can purchase sides of smoked salmon in Ireland. Snoek cuisine suggestions I have reviewed bring to mind the Spanish way with fresh sardines, another delicious oily fish. A charming, possibly unpronounceable expression in the Afrikaans language, equivalent to "knock me over with a feather", is "slaat ma dood met 'n pap snoek" or "strike me dead with a limp snoek".
Food memories endure because they intensely convey thoughts of happiness, grief, plenty and deprivation. The mother of an old friend who was interned in France by the Germans during World War II never again touched turnips because they were fed to her daily during her imprisonment. Even my own parents and my mother-in-law, who experienced relative luxury on the home front during the war, told stories of rationing that clearly formed a deep and permanent part of their life experience.
I would like to try snoek one day. It's right up my alley. But, frankly, so is that trip in the Way-Back Machine.
I would be remiss if I didn't provide at least one snoek recipe. This one, which CookSister linked to (her own smoked snoek pate looks marvelous and could easily be adapted to our own bluefish or mackerel, I think), looks very enticing:
Snoek With Coriander, Bacon and Orange
1 cleaned and butterfiled snoek
500 g back bacon
1 bunch fresh coriander
1. Place fresh, butterflied snoek on lightly oiled tin foil, flesh facing up
2. Lightly salt the flesh.
3. Squeeze over fish the juice of one orange.
4. Chop all the coriander and cover the fish completely.
5. Drizzle fish with olive oil.
6. Cook for 15-20 minutes, depending on thickness, in closed tin foil at 180 degrees C, and then open the tin foil and grill the bacon for a few minutes until crispy.
La Guienne in 1360
Boy Scout parade celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II