A Tale of Loaves and Fishes

What would you give up for Lent?

In the medieval world, wild hedonistic periods of feasting were balanced by sometimes long, barren periods of fasting. But none were more formidable than the forty-plus days of Lent.

Following the winter months, when fresh meat, butter and eggs were in short supply to begin with, Lent was dreaded. To the majority, fasting meant fish. Even to those with free access to freshwater fish it was a time of trial. It had long been believed that fish was ‘less wholesome and fulfilling than good, red meat’

Beaver was also fair game, as was whale and porpoise to those who had access to it.

Those living on the coast fared better with a far greater wealth of sea fish and crustacea than their land-bound cousins whose main staple was reduced to cheap bread from winter stored wheat and herring. The herring alone turned Lent into a time to be endured.

Whether salted, smoked or disguised under globulus sauces, it was still herring. In the main it would be cooked with cabbage or onions and served with mustard ‘sauce’!

But it was very difficult to see any joy in the experience. The absence of meat was excruciating.

The wealthier amongst the population could, with their ‘Master Cooks’, create far more palatable dishes. The fast feast (not to be confused in any way with fast food!) could include the far ‘meatier’ flesh of whale and porpoise. Luxuries such as pike, bream and salmon could be marinaded and poached in wine or roasted on a spit. The flesh could be chopped and mixed with spices and raisins and formed into rissoles. A paste of haddock mixed with dates, figs and almonds could be formed into balls and fried.

In later centuries, particularly from the mid 19th to the earlier 20th, industrialisation had transformed the food map of Great Britain. Canned foods such as processed ham, vegetables, stews and sauces were available in quantity. Commodities could traverse the country faster and faster. What would have taken days by wagon was now available almost same day.

And as the gulf between rich and poor widened, poverty of third world dimensions took hold in the expanding ghettos of the larger cities as ever larger numbers of field hands deserted the countryside in search of a better life.

National suffrage was also exposing social aberration and inadequacy in a solidly masculine world.

Through all this turmoil, the church battled to retain the old traditions and for many, rich and poor, Lent was still a time of sacrifice and starvation.

But through it all, the star of fish was rising. No longer would there be the huge barrels of salt herring to be overcome, as ever larger quantities of fresh cod, haddock, plaice and sole were being pulled from native waters.

Wondrous, wetly glistening fish began to arrive in the market-place in need only of fresh, wholesome ways of preparation for the table.

And as women established their battle for equality with men, so the surf established it’s own battle for equality with the turf!

The pictures and recipes on this and the previous fish post are all from yet another magazine supplement from the fifties when fish was ‘the cheapest first-class food money could buy’ 

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