Saturday, January 29, 2011

He Drew The Line At Snoek (Jean Conil)


"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.

Le Caprice

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".

Smoking 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 orange
1 bunch fresh coriander
Olive oil


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


  1. What a surprise to find the my snoek painting here on this blog

  2. Gary, Thanks so much for writing. I had no idea that this was your painting. I love it. I would like to credit you, if that would be ok and you are willing to let me continue to include it in this post. If so, please tell me your name and I'll include a credit, copyright notice, etc. You can reach me through if you would prefer to contact me that way. Curtis

  3. I was so very fortunate to have been taught by JC at what was then (mid 1960s) Hendon Technical College. What a very special and enthusiastic man he was.

    Do you have any way of contacting his son and or daughter?

  4. I do not. I wrote this because I finally took Conil's book down from my shelf (it belonged to my mother) and I was astonished at the amount of valuable information Conil managed to convey (so economically and elegantly) within its covers. When researching the piece, I tried to run down as much Conil biographical information, including images (I wanted to post a photo of him), as I could but I wasn't very successful. I'm not finished with Conil or this book for ACravan blog purposes. It's really great. I wish I could help you. I think Conil deserves a biography. Thank you so much for writing. I hope you visit again and stay in touch. Curtis Roberts

  5. I just found this, rather belatedly. I was Jean Conil's editor/co-author in the 1980s when he published four cookbooks for Thorsons Publishers - two vegetarian, one fruit and one fish book. He was a pleasure (if quite exhausting!) to work with, full of ideas and enthusiasm, and would send me huge boxes packed with notes and reminiscences in his distinctive hand, to accompany the recipes, which I would try to work into little personal preambles and anecdotes for each one.

    IUnfortunately I did not hear for quite some time that he had died, as I should very much have wished to attend his funeral or memorial service. I can never quite decide if he was one of the last of his kind or actually ahead of his time, a forerunner of the flamboyant, fiery superchefs we know today.

    Thank you for this piece, I wish you luck in your investigations and if there's anything I can do to help, please let me know.

  6. Fay, Thanks more than I can say for your note, which I was delighted to receive. The last of his kind/ahead of his time question is an interesting one, which will stay with me. Clearly, Conil combined an antiquarian's encyclopedic knowledge and sense of refinement with an energy that seems utterly contemporary. I don't object to all of the flamboyant superchefs, but I do wish that many of them would tone down the fire a little bit and concentrate simply on creating welcoming experiences for their diners/audiences. I enjoyed browsing through your blog and will visit there more later. I'm a lawyer by trade (living near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the US) and I'm up against a few deadlines. I haven't revisited Conil yet, as I had planned to, but I'd like to think you might find other pieces posted here that interest you. I try to keep things varied. Thank you again so much for writing. Curtis

  7. my turn to find this belatedly. but :
    i'm a french woman living on the island of Groix, in brittany
    "Oncle Jean" was my great uncle, my father's uncle, and my dear grandmother's brother.
    he passed to our family the gift and the passion of cooking he had been given by his parents, my great grand parents. My father is not a chef but he passed the exam by passion, and my youngest brother is now begining as a chef in Toulouse
    his children and little children still live in London and around
    thank you so much for this tribute
    he was a great gentleman in private too

  8. my turn to find this belatedly. but :
    i'm a french woman living on the island of Groix, in brittany
    "Oncle Jean" was my great uncle, my father's uncle, and my dear grandmother's brother.
    he passed to our family the gift and the passion of cooking he had been given by his parents, my great grand parents. My father is not a chef but he passed the exam by passion, and my youngest brother is now begining as a chef in Toulouse
    his children and little children still live in London and around
    thank you so much for this tribute
    he was a great gentleman in private too

    1. Dear Marie Remy:

      Thank you so much for your note. This post from a long time ago was a great pleasure to write and it seems to have been widely appreciated.

      I know I posted at least one more Jean Conil piece and I will try to find it for you later and send a further reply.

      I'm not surprised to find that this masterful man was a great gentleman.

      It's wonderful to read your note.

      Greetings from rainy Tuxedo Park, NY. Heading back to Philadelphia shortly.

      Curtis Roberts

  9. Hello Curtis, My son Philip sent me your link, how interesting to read such positive comments about my father Jean Conil, I do have an in-depth knowledge of his life.

    The Conil household was always a hive of activity, food being the centre of attention.

    I remember his time at Hendon Technical College, I was a student at the National Bakery School in London and went on to become a Master Baker.

    At present I'm compiling info for a docu video about his life & times in the industry.

    My son Philip is researching his early career as he plans his new life in New York as a musician with his beautiful wife Maria.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with so many friends and relatives, hope we can keep the memory alive.

    Best wishes

    Chris Conil

    1. Chris -- Please forgive my delay in replying. Your father's book, and the things I have learned about him when I researched this and after I posted this piece, are very important to me and really affected my world view since I was my own mother's son and a teenager, i.e., for a very long time. He was truly a great man. This will sound a little bit off-topic and perhaps (I hope not) inappropriate, but I am an entertainment lawyer based in NY and Philadelphia with a great deal of film industry experience, including documentary film making and working with artists. In the event you or Chris ever need any professional assistance or would simply care to meet for a meal, drink, coffee or a chat, please let me know. I and my wife and daughter consider ourselves to be in your family's debt. My email is Phone is 610-688-3547. Greetings from (finally spring is here) Philadelphia.

      Best regards,

      Curtis Roberts