“What are you making?” said my sister, peering over my shoulder into the saucepan. “Mmm, disgusting sauce! My favourite.” It is true that the sauce at that point did not look appetising: under the fluorescent kitchen light it was somehow both beige and almost pinkish. My uncle and I were making quenelles de brochet — pike dumplings in a rich sauce, a traditional dish of Lyon — “an aristocratic dumpling . . . a light and delicate confection”, says Jane Grigson, in her Fish Book (Penguin, £16.99). (The word quenelle is cognate with the Yiddish kneidel.) My aunt and uncle happened to have a pike and suggested making the quenelles for a family gathering at my grandparents’ house — a mere 17 of us.
This is an almost forgotten dish: Anthony Bourdain, in his essay “The Old Good Stuff” (reprinted in The Nasty Bits, Bloomsbury, £9.99), describes it as something “maybe one chef among thousands remembers, much less knows how to prepare”, grouping it with blanquette de veau: unironic, beige-on-beige dishes from another time. In a 1973 issue of New York magazine, the publisher Alfred Knopf, one of “Fifteen Well-Known Epicures”, chooses it as his favourite dish, but it was old-fashioned even then. (Meanwhile, Gael Greene’s “Greatest Dishes in Town” in the same issue includes morels stuffed with pike mousse, and brioche de brochet — pike in pastry, with watercress sauce. Pike was clearly having a moment.)
In my family we have a very specific term for a semi-pointless personal project: we call it a “shrinkle”. Shrinkles™ (the main US brand is Shrinky Dinks) are sheets of plastic (sometimes printed with a design); a child draws or colours it in, cuts out a shape, and bakes it in the oven. The plastic (a kind of polystyrene) shrinks into a small hard plate. You then turn your ornament into a badge or a keyring or any other number of unnecessary items. Anything can be termed a shrinkle if it is a) time-consuming, b) not, to an outsider, worth the time put into it, c) demonstrating a vortex-like tendency by sucking other people in. It is difficult to maintain a sensible perspective on a shrinkle and adulthood only worsens this tendency. My uncle’s plan to make quenelles de brochet was a shrinkle of the highest order. Real quenelles involve an awful lot of pounding and sieving and moulding and poaching to achieve something of no particular colour or texture — described by my uncle as having “a faint hint of fish”.
The first difficulty is acquiring a pike: this one was caught in the river Severn, in fact “caught very easily: casting with a spinner, no bait”, said my uncle. If you catch a pike you may legally keep him only if he is less than 65 cm long: large, old pike regulate the waters by eating small, diseased and dying fish, or other pike. Fortunately, Izaak Walton informs us that the smaller pike are better eating: “The old or very great Pikes have in them more of state than goodness.” (You can buy pike fillets online at thefishsociety.co.uk, or substitute another white fish. Or make something else entirely.) Traditional recipes have you make a panade — the first step of choux dough which is a sort of roux, a cooked mixture of flour, butter and milk, which you then mix with the raw puréed fish, and force through a sieve.
We took a shortcut: Jane Grigson allows you to use breadcrumbs soaked in milk, and my uncle knew from experience that removing the notoriously finicky y-shaped bones is much easier once the fish is cooked. So we disobeyed every recipe and poached the fish first in a court-bouillon. Breadcrumbs, butter and eggs were put in the Magimix with the fish, seasoned with nutmeg, and, not knowing any better, I formed the resulting paste into things which looked rather like gnocchi. The true quenelle should be a sort of fluffy zeppelin which is poached, then baked in the oven, and served with sauce Nantua (a Bechamel with the addition of freshwater crayfish). Ours were just poached in salted water — like gnocchi or matzo balls, they swelled and rose to the surface when done — and served with a white sauce made from the pike broth created by the poaching, local perry, and cream. Our pike yielded one and a half pounds of meat, which made 53 inauthentically small quenelles (three each, two left over). Plating and serving was a feat in itself — the quenelles had to come to the table plate by plate and we ate them at the same time as the other course (home-cured gravadlax with cucumber salad, mustard sauce and pumpernickel).
It isn’t normal to eat a carnivore: it’s inefficient, in energy terms, to eat the creature at the top of the food pyramid. Pike will eat frogs, ducklings, other pike. Ted Hughes, in his poem “Pike” (in Lupercal, Faber, £8.99; you can also listen to him read the poem online at poetryarchive.org) calls them “killers from the egg”. To Izaak Walton they are “the tyrant of the fresh water”: he describes pike attacking horses, humans, fighting with otters and dogs. Moreover “a Pike will devour a fish of his own kind that shall be bigger than his belly or throat will receive”. Ted Hughes finds two pike washed up, dead, “one jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet”. Search “pike attack” on YouTube: all you see is a dark ominous shape moving under the water, and then a violent splashing. Folklore on pike claims they are immensely long-lived; for Hughes they represent something deep and primordial. The pond where he fishes is:
. . . as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast.
The irony is that we mash this prehistoric deity into a smooth mild dumpling and cover it with a soft creamy blanket. The quenelles were fine, I think, and the sauce was very good, despite my sister’s misgivings. I cleaned the flesh remnants from the pike’s jaw and as far as I know it is still sitting on the mantelpiece about a mile from the place it was caught.