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A return to Christchurch

I’ve just come back from Christchurch, where I lived for a year a very long time ago. It was great, catching up with dear old friends, hanging out at my friend Amanda’s house drinking too much red wine. We planned to go out, but somehow we’ve always just wound up sitting around her table, trying to persuade each other to go across the road to Northlands mall to buy more wine. So that’s what we did.

I did get some eating in, though – actually quite a lot. It’s what I was there to do, after all. Christchurch has come a long way since I lived there in 2002; it’s really come into its own. Back then, what you might call the inner city ended basically at the bottom of High Street, and turned into abandoned Victorian brick warehouses and engineering workshops. Since then, they’ve slowly developed the are that’s become known as SoL – South of Lichfield.

There’s been controversy. The Christchurch City Council bailed out developer David Henderson, who is responsible for a lot of it, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing. Those lovely old warehouses have been converted into shops, restraurants and bars around narrow little laneways and courtyards. It’s a perfect respite from those long windy straight avenues.

Mitchelli’s – a deli and bar started by two sisters, the Mitchells – was a standout for breakfast: I had a bacon buttie with a fried egg, which cost a measly $10 and which fuelled me up for the rest of the day. The bacon was smoky, pleasantly dry but not tough and the ciabatta was airy.

I also loved The Twisted Hop – a microbrewery right in the middle of it all. Not so much for the food, but for the beer, which is made on site. I had the Challenger, an English-style ale, surprisingly punchy and tangy and a good dark amber in the glass. It was a bit colder than they serve it in England, but it soon warmed up. Christchurch has a great beer scene, with a handful of craft brewers – it’s just a shame more places don’t insist on stocking only local beer.

And I headed out to Akaroa to check out a little tapas bar called Vangioni’s, which a friend had recommended. Chef Steve Bradley makes all his own prosciutto, bresaola and chorizo. Dried meat products always excite me no end. I managed to convince him to give me some chorizo: I’ve been cooking with it ever since – it’s spicy and he leaves the meat quite chunky, so it retains its flavour and moistness. I’ve had to put the rest in the freezer to save for later.

Then, there was Restaurant Schwass, which is located down next to the Christchurch Stadium in a semi-industrial area with the very excellent Harrington’s Brewery across the road. Jonny Schwass has cooked all over Christchurch and Melbourne and three years ago started his own joint. The passion, he told me, is “farm to plate” – the idea that everything on the menu is traceable or, preferably, grown himself. He’s got a couple of blokes on a garden out in West Melton growing 80 per cent of his vegetables and is about to plant a small garden on the roof of the restaurant. It’s also remarkably inexpensive: five courses costs $55.

Which would matter for nought if the food wasn’t so good – it’s thoughtful, soulful even. The menu changes daily and the produce is exceptional; Schwass and his team are almost butchers and make full use of the whole animal. “When you kill an animal you have an obligation to eat the whole thing,” he said. I started with Bluffies and moved to perfectly roasted quail with a Jerusalem artichoke and apple soup, which was silky. Then there was lamb, cooked two ways – a slow-cooked piece of neck and a rare piece of loin; it came with light, chewy gnocchi and I ate it all.

It occurred to me that Christchurch is ideally placed for this kind of restaurant – the rents are lower than other centres and it takes barely 15 minutes to get to the Canterbury Plains, which has an astonishing variety of small producers. Since I was last there, a whole host of intelligent small restaurants and bars have opened, something our bigger cities seem to be losing as rent goes up and million-dollar fitouts become common. It was great to see and – in all honesty I never thought I’d say this – I’m looking forward to going back.

Portland, Oregon

I’ve just got back from Portland, Oregon. I went for a travel story: five nights, 17 hours up and 15 hours down. It was quite exciting: on the way up I managed to scam my way into the United First Class Lounge at LAX with nothing but an Air New Zealand Koru Club card and a smile to show for it, and then when I was there I ate about as much as I’ve ever eaten in four days – apart from perhaps Malaysia, which will go down in history as my week of Mr Creosote.

It seems that everyone in Portland (pop, two million) has moved there within the past 10 years. It’s a great college town and it’s also attractive for “creatives” seeking an easier lifestyle than other parts of the West Coast where you need to sell both kidneys and an eye in order to buy a house – property values have soared and condos have been built as people have rejuvenated this formerly run-down blue-collar city. It’s the home or the design centre for companies like Nike and Columbia and as a result, every third car is a Volvo with a bike rack on the back.

As a result, everyone seems to be aged under 35 and is highly, excitably, obsessed with food. This has resulted in a ridiculous restaurant scene rivalling some of the best eating cities on the planet: you really do feel like you’re in a city twice or three times the size. It has 32 craft breweries – so the IPA, I can assure you, is excellent – and a number of craft distilleries. The Willamette Valley, about an hour away, makes remarkable pinot noir. In everything, the emphasis is on the local, always.

But the best thing about Portland, though, the food carts. Across the rest of the States, food carts – portable kitchens in trailers with a window, which usually serve grease with a small amount of protein included for free – are reserved for the drunk, the homeless, the poor or those who find themselves ludicrously hungry at odd hours.

In one of those wonderfully extreme American happenings, Portlanders have gentrified the food cart and now, trendy foodcarts are exploding on deserted lots across Portland. It has all the excitement that comes with street food, but the safety of knowing they have to get a hygeine certificate for the kitchen and they won’t be washing the dishes in the gutter.

A few years back and particularly through the recession, chefs started opting out of long hours and crap pay to open food carts, serving stunning food – much of it made completely from scratch. One of my favourites was Addys Sandwich Bar, which I squeezed in the morning I left: a dark, dense country pate on crunchy, chewy baguette with cornichons and homemade mustard. It was perfectly balanced, and I ate it all and was sorely tempted to get another – why wouldn’t you, for $5.50? Just yesterday I was clearing out my bag and found the wrapper from it, and I sighed.

I also ate Mexican – sadly average, but I’m told there are good ones; late-night potato poutine, perfect Belgian fries slathered in (a little too much) tangy gravy from Potato Champion, which is open until 3am; a chickpea sandwich from Garden State; lemon ice from the Oregon Ice Works, which I loved mainly for the name and also because it was hot and the ice was sour. Then, there was a really terrific Som Tum from a brilliant Thai stall downtown – green papaya salad with a sweet/sour dressing; it came with succulent barbecued pork. I haven’t had one that good since I was last in Thailand.

I wonder if Fedex does food?

Fishy business

If you know me very well, you’ll know that I tend to bang on a lot about fish. Partly, that’s because we live about ten minutes’ walk from the very excellent Auckland Fish Market; partly it’s because we try to eat as little meat as possible. And partly, well partly, it’s because I just really like eating fish.

When I was a kid, my late grandfather Poppa was still fishing. A master boatsman, I suspect there are secret snapper fishing spots around Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf that he took to the grave. He’d head out on his classic launch  Korowai – all varnish and polished brass – and come back with a stack of fillets. We’d get a phone call in the afternoon and would rush over to my grandparents’ place to pick up some of the freshest, most beautifully filleted fish I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Mum would lightly flour it and fry it ever so briefly in butter. To do anything else with it would be a crime.

The problem is, though, that I’m no fisherman: as a child I wasn’t very into killing things and so I never learned, which is a shame. So I can’t get out and catch my own fish. And much as I like snapper, these days I don’t really eat it – it’s on Greenpeace’s Red List and, when they used to put out a guide to fish with Forest & Bird, it wasn’t too high on the list either.

The probem is in this country, despite a very flash Quota Management System, we aren’t fishing sustainably: there are a number of fisheries in New Zealand, hoki and orange roughy in particular, where bottom trawling is rife. There are others where the catch level – or, if you like, the market demand – is simply unsustainable. I think part of the problem, too, is that in this country we’ve come to think of “fish” as being white and small flaked, like snapper and tarakihi.

That’s not only unsustainable, it’s boring.

It’s ridiculous to be this way, living as we do in a country surrounded by water, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to get out there and try different types of fish. It’s also incumbent on us not to eat the Vietnamese catfish that seem to be appearing in supermarkets – and, alas, the Auckland Fish Market. There may possibly be nothing worse for you to eat than a fish farmed in the Mekong Delta (I know, I’ve been there) and then transported across the planet.

What’s got me thinking about this recently is that a new fish guy has come to my market. He doesn’t have a huge range – it seems to be whatever he can lay his hands on that week – but he can, importantly, tell you where it was caught. It tends to be the less-eaten or more sustainable types, although he did, sigh, have snapper the other day and, sigh, he seemed to be selling rather a lot of it.

I came over all excited and bought some sardines the first week he was there: caught off the coast of Northland, they came whole, and he gave me some vague instructions on how to fillet them.  Scrape off the scales, chop off the head and tail, cut a slice down its belly and haul out the guts. Then, very gently with the tip of a knife, you lift the spine up and out.

Which sounded very simple, until I realised I’d never before attempted anything like that before. I do, however, possess some sharp knives and an internet connection, so figured I’d be ok.

Simple? Um, no. It made a bloody, smelly mess in the sink and I managed to massacre the first one so that it was basically the skin with some flecks of flesh clinging to it. But I got the hang of it, and made a good job of the others. Then I felt most manly. By the time my partner got home, the fishy guts had been disposed off and the fish were grilling nicely, skin on, rubbed with a bit of salt and pepper and olive oil.

The next week, he had hapuku wings – the bit around the fin, which is a bit fattier than the rest of the fish. While hapuku isn’t as sustainable as sardines, I justified it on the basis that people don’t normally eat the wings – I suspect they get turned into fish fingers. Five bucks each and dinner was halfway there: I rubbed them with olive oil and salt and pepper, set them on a bed of lemon and parsley and roasted them on 200º for about 20 minutes before finishing them off under the grill. I served them with oven-baked chips – of which more later. They were superb and succulent and we had a jolly old time sucking the meat off the bones.

Then, there was kahawai. When I was a kid, kahawai was good only for bait or smoking, which is a travesty. When properly bled, it’s a stunner. It’s a great cooking fish, because it’s oily and strong and flakey, brilliant for omelettes or frittatas or just for simply grilling and serving with potatoes and salad. Best of all? It’s cheap: a whole fish will cost you a measly $5.

So get out there. Seek out fish you haven’t eaten before or cooked for a while. If you must have white fish, at least make it tarakihi. And don’t touch the catfish.

Shanking good

I was up at Nosh the other day and they had lamb shanks on special, which seemed as good a reason as any to cook up a slow-cook Sunday dinner. $12.99 a kilo! Bargain!

I like to make lamb shanks because they’re the one kind of meaty hearty dish my beloved will readily agree to. We are reformed vegetarians, see, and we still don’t eat a great deal of meat – once a week usually, if that. These days, I’m what might be described as a happy, if infrequent, carnivore, but my darling isn’t. I’ve learned, though, that any slow-cooked lamb dish is certain to meet with approval. So we bought some.

The shanks themselves were big. Huge, in fact. Half a kilogram each: more Flintstone food. Normally, I’d braise them in the classical manner – flour them, fry them in a little oil and butter until browned, then cook up celery, carrot and onion, put the meat back in and douse the whole thing with a nice soft red wine, before cooking them for about four hours, turning once an hour or so. I highly recommend this.

But it was Sunday, and I intended to devote most of a rainy afternoon to cooking, so I found this recipe on the very brilliant Saveur magazine website, from Sally Scmidt, who used to own the legendary French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. It involves lashings of mint. My favourite herb: how could I resist?

It’s still pretty simple. You zest a lemon, then cut it in half and rub the lamb with the juice. Fry off onions and garlic until the onions are soft, then add the carrots and the celery and cook until they’re hot. Take out the vegetables, then add the meat and a little more oil and butter and fry the meat until brown on all sides: you might need to cook them in batches. That’s okay.

Once they’re all browned, layer the meat in the bottom of a casserole, add the veges and then cover with a lot of mint. Pour over red wine and stock and put in the oven for three to four hours at 170º – I actually did mine at more like 160º.

Here’s what it looked like, moments before I left it to the oven while enjoying some cinema time.

Then, I went out to the movies, since the best part is that you don’t need to turn the meat regularly. Four hours later, I returned, to find that the mixture had sunk a little, which gave a lovely roasted quality to the top parts of the meat, while the rest of it was immersed in the braising liquid.

I mixed through the chopped lemon rind and then served, covered with mountains of mint and mashed potatoes, with a side of Brussels Sprouts. It was hearty and wintery but still zesty from all that mint and lemon and the meat fell away from the bone – you could eat it with a spoon.

There’s still some more in the freezer. I may eat it very soon. After that, I will make it again.

A small rant

I’m always a bit alarmed these days at the supermarket, which I visit as infrequently as possible, to see people loading up their bags with loads of pre-processed food, soft drink and bright red supermarket meat – it reminds me that a way of eating that I thought was long gone is alive and well and chewing through carbon.

You probably think that makes me a food snob and to a certain extent, I suppose it does. I buy most of our fresh fruit and vegetables from the La Cigale market – it’s not quite a farmers market, but it’s a nice halfway. The vege stand there is brilliant: it’s run by a ma and pa operation who get all their stuff direct from the growers and who are constantly sourcing new and exciting types of produce.

I always stop by first at Sally’s Veges – Sally farms out at Kumeu and grows the most amazing produce in Auckland, spray-free, picked the evening before or even that morning and superb. It actually has taste and increasingly, I buy most of my stuff from her. There’s also an old Serbian guy who grows his own superb tomatoes and capsicums and who occasionally slips me a shot of his homemade liqueur, so I sort of float around the market in a slight alcoholic daze.

What got me thinking about this again recently was the Green Party’s survey of growers, which claimed to show how much growers were getting squeezed by the supermarkets. To an extent, they were right: there’s a determined move by Progressives, at least, to only deal with one supplier and to harmonise prices.

But I thought the approach was simplistic, to be honest: agriculture is a huge business these days and the supermarkets are dealing with massive suppliers in the main – the food in your supermarket is part of an industrial supply chain that seeks to remove any sense of seasonability and, in doing so, even out the prices year round. I was shocked this year when I found capsicums at the height of summer selling for $1.99 each – I pay $2 a kilo from my Serbian guy and I ge a drink thrown in too!

But the supermarkets aren’t buying from each grower one by one – they’ve long been locked out and have sought other avenues to sell. These days, the supermarkets only control 60 per cent of the fresh market between them, and that’s dropping. The reality is, there are two trends emerging: a massive, industrial supply chain on the one hand and more direct purchasing and distribution through markets and small independents on the other. Long may it continue, I say – and the more we buy from markets, the more we’ll be putting money into the pockets of the people that actually do the work.

When I had a chat with Wallace about this on the wireless the other day, he challenged me with a question: what family with kids and a tight budget can afford to spend Saturday morning down the market?

I schlubbed the question and only realised afterwards that the answer was two-fold. Firstly, there’s a huge amount of waste from the industrial supply chain – veges get old, they go off, either in the store itself or, more likely, in the fridge. A huge proportion of food is wasted each and every day in this country because we’re all so addicted to the big supermarket shop.

And secondly, how much do you value your health and your diet? Surely, even for people on a budget, that’s the most important thing? As an example, we feed the two of us on $120 a week all up. For that, we usually get at least six dinners and plenty of leftovers. I don’t think that’s too bad going and for a long time, we only spent $100 – we recently increased the budget to allow for buying expensive stuff every now and then, cheese and a bit of meat now that we eat that more often.

My only concern with markets in this country has traditionally been that they’ve had one meagre vege stall and three people selling olive oil – but the balance seems to be shifting and people like La Cigale are working really hard to get seasonal growers in, which is great to see. The best thing, though, is having a chat with whoever is on the stall – ask them how to cook whatever they’re selling, how to prepare it. It’s fun, and it’ll get you into food you’d never even considered. And if you’ve got kids, take them too.

No sure where to look? There’s a good site here:

On soup and food processors

I’ve just eaten a very good plate of soup from, of all places, the canteen at ACP Media, where I work about 20 hours a week – silverbeet and parsnip, a little too much salt, but a lovely dark green silverbeety colour. Quite magnificent. Perhaps predictably, there hasn’t been too much uptake, so I might go and buy one for lunch tomorrow.

It’s got me thinking about my complete lack of a food processor, though. About three years ago, when we went overseas, we ditched all the crapped-out old bits that we didn’t want to pay to store and vowed to never again just buy cheap kitchen things ‘cos we needed something. This brought about an unprecedented level of exciting kitchen purchases, including the famous Le Creuset and my latest toy, a Lodge cast-iron skillet.

But I’ve never quite got around to investing in a food processor, which seems a little odd now that I’ve reached the grand old age of 30 – and it took me years to get around to investing in a set of digital scales, which I now use every day.

Which is all very well and good, except I do find myself reading recipes that say “put in food processor” and realising I can’t – it cuts out a whole lot of fun stuff. Like silverbeet and parsnip soup.

The problem is, I sorely want a Magimix Food Processor 5200 in brushed chrome, like this:

It comes with commercial-grade engines and nice chunky lines – I need a manly food processor, see – and a long, long warranty, which is important when you’re as hard on things as I am. And it’s basic: on, off, pulse. No dicking around.

But, sigh, it costs $899, so it won’t be happening any time soon. I could buy a lesser version from somewhere else for about $200, but I know that I’d resent it every time I saw it because it wasn’t the one I really wanted, and one day it would break and I’d say, “See! See! I knew this would happen!’

So I won’t. Not just yet.

On the plus side, this last weekend I cashed in some useless Qantas airpoints from a flight to Hong Kong I took years ago for… Farmers gift vouchers and we had a jolly time on Sunday buying up a whole pile of very nice stuff, like a salad spinner. And pyrex! And a nice shiny new peeler! And BPA-free Sistema food containers! All of it built to last and very, immensely, useful. Golly.

Mmmm, barbecue pork ribs

My friend Ginny and I have been going on – and on, my partner would add – about Fette Sau, a very brilliant restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, where the beer comes in jam jars and they serve Southern-style barbecue. Think slow-cooked pulled pork, slow-barbecued Berkshire beef, all cooked with secret sauce, lots of slaw and white bread rolls – as in the salivating picture above. It’s white trash food, only with organic single-source meat. I visited it last March when Ginny and her partner David were living in Brooklyn and it was one of the highlights of my eating career.

We had a gig to go to on the Saturday night at the Wine Cellar and, seeing as we were approaching the shortest day of the year, a slow-cook ribfest seemed to be in order. Ginny had some pork ribs in her freezer from Nosh, which she hauled out, defrosted and then proceeded to marinate in her secret sauce, which she won’t tell me the recipe to but which seems to involve red wine, tomato paste, molasses, juniper berries, pepper corns and a bay leaf – it’s a sticky sort of marinade which she reports she would normally leave ribs in for a couple of days. Then she slow roasted them for about four hours, uncovered, on a rack in the oven.

We arrived about 7, armed with 2kg of Agria potatoes and a kilo of brussels sprouts. While Ginny put the rubs under the grill – ordinarily, this is when you’d put them on the barbecue, but, new-fangled crazy apartment dwellers that we are, the old Shacklock had to do – I boiled up the spuds and chopped up the brussels sprouts.

There are three keys to good mash. Firstly, bring them to the boil in cold water and cook until they’re soft enough that you can poke a fork through them easily – and make sure you add plenty of salt to the water. Then drain them and leave for a few minutes to dry – this ensures you don’t lose all that lovely starch. The second key is loads of butter, less milk. The third is to use hot milk – my theory is that it does something to the starch in the potatoes that renders them silky and fluffy almost instantly. Whip like hell and add lots of salt. (I have, on occasion, slipped some cheese in there too, as well as caramelised leeks, just for variety.)

We finished this off with Brussels Sprouts, which have a bad rep but which are truly spesh, especially if you braise them. Choose ones that aren’t too large and have tightly packed leaves; ignore the ones with any brown spots or yellowing leaves. This means they’re old: supermarkets in particular are awful at leaving Brussels sprouts too long.

Rinse the Brussels and remove the tough outer leaves, then cut the last of the stalk off and slice them in two vertically. Then get a nice big skillet or frying pan and put a good dollop of good olive il in it. Heat it up and add the Brussels, cut side down. Jiggle them a bit but don’t move them too much, even if it looks like they’re burning – they’re not. Once they’re sufficiently brown, add a tiny bit of water (or even wine) and then pop a lid on it. The end result should be nice and caramelised and cooked sufficiently through. When they’re cooked – you want them soft but not squidgy – put them in a bowl and top with shavings of parmesan or grana padano and salt and pepper to taste.

The combination was truly fantastic – mash, greens in the pan (no sissy steamed veges here: it’s all about the frying pan) and the ribs, which were sticky and soft and which you could pull apart virtually with your fingers. It was, in all, brilliantly Flintstone food, and we will do them again.

Popo Pomodoro

Some of you may have heard me wittering on about soup the other day on Wallace’s show, so I thought I’d post this recipe up – pictures to follow of this one as I’ve already eaten all of the last batch. That takes some doing.

Popo pomodoro is a Tuscan bread soup – as well as steak, Tuscans make a lot of bread soups that are designed to use up yesterday’s bread. It’s a great way to find uses for the end of loafs that always seem to be orphaned in the back of the pantry. I must emphasise here that we are talking about artisan bread, rather than leftover bits of pre-sliced supermarket bread.

I have to admit here to a small freezer obsession: I tend to chuck far too many things into the freezer in some vague hope that we might use them, eventually. At the moment, it’s full of grapefruit that will one day get turned into marmalade and about 2kg of Central Otago apricots that I’m going to turn into jam. Honest.

Usually, there’s a few random ends of stale bread. When I get to critical mass, I haul it all out and make up a bowl of this. There are various differnt thoughts on how to make it – some people add the tomatoes to the garlic and then the bread, but I like what frying the bread does to the taste and texture of the soup. You end up with a gorgeous bready, tomatoey, olive-oil-filled bowl of goodness. It burns your tongue if you eat it too fast and it is always silky and pulpy and most unlike stale bread.

It usually makes a tonne – lucky it freezes well.

You’ll need:

- Bread. Stale. Preferably a baguette or a sourdough or a ciabatta.

- Garlic.

- Olive oil. About 3-4 Tbsp.

- Two cans of whole peeled tomatoes.

- 250ml of stock.

Chop the bread into one-inch pieces. Add oil to a heavy-based saucepan and fry up the garlic until it’s just coloured. Add the bread. Watch it suck up the olive oil and marvel. Add more oil if necessary.

When the bread is browned, add the stock. Cook it over a highish heat until all the stock has been sucked up by the bread and the whole mixture is starting to go smushy.

Add the tomatoes. Stir. Maybe add some water if it’s not very wet. Cook for an hour or so until the tomatoes have broken down completely and the whole thing is lovely and tomatoey and rich.

Serve in a deep bowl with another splodge of olive oil and basil (in summer) or parsley.

NB: Don’t be alarmed by the thick layer of sticky bread stuff on the bottom of the pan, it comes off.

Winter = Smoked Fish Pie

One of the drawbacks to living in a 1960s Modernist building with masses of glass is that when the temperature drops and you don’t have thermal curtains or adequate heating, it gets a bit cold.  So this weekend is Project Heating: we’re going to buy a new, bigger, flasher heater – I wanted to get a radiator but apparently you need to plug that into the mains and screw it to the wall, which I imagine might irk Steve our nice landlord – and also a heated towel rail for the bathroom. Luxury.

But in the meantime, I’ve been cooking up a storm of winter food. I’ve finally accepted that winter is ok after the longest, hottest summer anyone can remember: I went into shock at the market when the first Brussels Sprouts appeared a couple of months back and had to take myself off for a Croque Monsieur and a lie-down.

In an attempt to heat our place up a bit, I’ve been cooking a lot of hearty good food recently and I thought I’d blog about that for a bit. Well, more hearty than usual. I can never go past smoked fish pie though – especially now that we’ve discovered Mulleez smoked fish at the La Cigale market on Saturdays.

Mulleez puts all other smoked fish to shame. You get a good dark smoke, plenty of flavour, but the fish is so fresh it doesn’t dry out at all. So it’s still succulent and moist. God knows how he does it, but it’s also not as salty as a lot of other smoked fish – so I suspect too much salt will dry out your fish while it’s smoking.

Smoked fish pie is easy: my mum got me and my brother making it when we were teenagers. Will was the master of the white sauce, while I got to do everything else. I look back and marvel at her guile: she actually managed to get two teenaged boys into the kitchen, one of whom was so obsessive about white sauce that he would elbow everyone else away from the stove while he got it perfect, poking his index finger in and calling for more salt like a baby Gordon Ramsay.

The key is the best smoked fish you can buy – I like Mulleez smoked kahawai, because it has a strong texture that will withstand cooking and it’s also about as sustainable as fish gets these days. And if you buy a whole fish, it costs about $10 and there’s lots of it.

As noted above, the key to all this is a good white sauce. In fact it’s crucial. Possibly because I was never allowed to develop my skills in this department, it took me years to find a good recipe, and it was only this year that I thought to look in The Silver Spoon, where, naturally, I found the perfect recipe had been under my nose all that time.

So you want 50 grams of butter, 50 grams of plain flour and 500ml of milk. Heat the milk gently first and add a bayleaf if you feel like it.

Then melt the butter on a medium heat, add the flour and whisk – whisking, not wooden spooning, is key – for a couple of minutes. Don’t brown it, whatever you do. Then add the milk in one, swooping pour, and bring it almost to the boil. Once you’ve done that, lower the heat right down (this is the point at which you sigh and wish you had a gas cooker) and cook it very gently, stirring regularly but not whipping the hell out of it. It’s ready when it’s lovely and silky and sticks to the back of a teaspoon. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

While you’re doing that, you should be buzzing about the kitchen getting everything else sorted. Possibly, if you had a brain, you would have done this first. I don’t, usually.

The best smoked fish pie have potato tops: use good floury agria potatoes. Bring them to the boil until you can break them apart with a fork, just, and then drain. Leave them for four or five minutes, then smash them up – don’t mash them – and mix plenty of olive oil through.

While you’re doing that, Boil two or three eggs, cool and slice.

Flake the smoked fish into the bottom of a decent-sized baking dish – I use the trusty Emile Henri gratin dish. Also, sautee a couple of chopped leeks in a stout frying pan until they’re slightly caramelised. Mix the leeks through the fish.

Pour over your béchamel sauce, mix it all properly, add the sliced eggs over the top and smoodge them in a bit. Top with the smashed potato and put in an oven on 180ª for about 40 minutes until the top is brown and the whole thing’s bubbling. Serve with, yes, some nice Brussels sprouts.