It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten. It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine. Here, however, I shall take the liberty to defy that convention and to tell you that the lunch on this occasion began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe.
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
Mary, Dickon and Colin’s picnics in their secret garden, Miss Maudie’s famous Lane Cake, the clam chowder that warms Ishmael and Queequeg, Bruce Bogtrotter’s monstrous chocolate cake - I’m forever finding meals (more than 120 so far) that jump off the page, demanding to be eaten. In the past week, I have re-read, or re-scanned, if we’re being fair, upwards of thirty of my favourite books. Alongside a weekly post here, I’m currently working on a cookbook that will be published next year, and my finalised recipe list is due next week. Just when I feel confident I’ve not missed anything and save a ‘final draft’ of the Excel spreadsheet, I spot an old forgotten tome in a bookshop, or someone presses an as-yet-unknown story into my hands, certain I’ll find something delicious in its pages.
The reality is though, for every mouth-watering mention of Turkish Delight (eaten on a sleigh in Narnia), there are countless writers who are guilty of just what Woolf discusses above - declining to write about the meals their characters consume as they gossip, or fight, or woo. For some, there are more important details to address. Often, vague allusions to ‘dinner’ or ‘platters’ or ‘drinks’ are enough for the writer, who knows the imaginations of their readers will fill in the blanks. Despite countless events occurring during mealtimes in Sense and Sensibility, we are left to imagine for ourselves what Marianne and Elinor Dashwood may have eaten in their Devonshire cottage, at dinner with Sir John and Lady Middleton and Mrs Jennings, or during the heartbreaking trip to London.
Not so, Virginia Woolf. The three-course luncheon in A Room of One’s Own is rich in detail. The importance of this meal lies in its stark contrast to the one served at the all women’s college. While the Oxbridge men have sole, partridge, a ‘retinue of sauces and salads’ and a ‘confection that rose all sugar from the waves’, the women at Fernham eat clear soup, beef, greens and potatoes and prunes with custard. The few paragraphs about these two meals has long been one of my favourite pieces of food writing. I’m excited to be recreating this second meal (I will be taking significant creative license with the details) at a supper club in the coming months.
In the meantime, the evocative description of the sole above, covered in a ‘counterpane of the whitest cream’ and ‘branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe’ still leaves some decisions to the reader/cook. Is the cream sauce dotted with mushrooms or shrimp? Is it thickened with a roux in order to be ‘spread’? Are the brown spots some brown butter perhaps – a common sole accompaniment? I decided to keep the sauce simple, so that the sole could shine. I also added some tiny green-brown capers, a favourite of mine when eating anything from the sea.
Dover Sole with White Sauce
Serves 4 (as a decadent starter, or a main)
4 Dover sole, gutted (if you don’t have access to Dover sole, substitute with other types of sole or flounder)
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
2tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic
150ml dry vermouth
150ml fish stock (homemade is great if you have it – I cook up a batch whenever I have a good collection of raw fish bones/heads after preparing a meal, and store it in ice cube trays in my freezer)
120ml double cream
2tbsp capers, drained
Wide, shallow frying pan
1. First, prepare the fish. Place it dark-side up and make a cut through the skin, perpendicular to the spine, just above the tail. Peel the skin back slowly, using the point of the knife to help you start. Once you have a piece of skin large enough to grip, rub some coarse salt between your fingers and grip the skin firmly with one hand. Place the heel of your other hand firmly on the tail, and then pull back the skin, being particularly careful once you reach the head, or you may end up with a headless fish.
2. Flip the fish over, and repeat with the pale skin on the other side. Put the fish aside for a moment while you prepare the sauce.
3. Finely chop the garlic and shallot. Place a medium sized saucepan over a low-medium heat, and melt the butter for the sauce. Add the garlic and shallot, and cook for 2-3 minutes.
4. Pour in the vermouth, and simmer until the liquid reduces by half. Add the fish stock and, once again, reduce the liquid by half. Remove from the heat, sieve the sauce (discarding the garlic and shallots) and stir in the cream and capers. Return the sauce back to the saucepan - do give it a wash out first - ready to warm through once the fish is ready.
5. Put the flour for the fish in a wide, shallow bowl, and add a grinding of pepper. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over each side of the fish. Put one fish into the flour, and then flip it over, so that both sides are lightly covered in flour. Give the fish a shake to get rid of any excess, and repeat with the other three.
6. Place your widest saucepan over a medium heat. Warm the oil, then add the butter and, once the butter is foaming, add as many of the fish as will fit in the pan. Cook for around four minutes, until golden, then carefully flip the fish over using a fish slice or egg flip. Cook for a further four minutes on the second side. If you can’t fit all the fish in the pan at once, pop them in a low oven to keep them warm while you finish the second batch.
7. Place the fish on individual plates and warm the sauce through. Bring fish and sauce to the table and eat immediately.