Let Them Eat Salmon…

In Old Mortality, Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel set at the time of the Covenanter Rising of 1679, the author describes how salmon was not always regarded as a luxury:

A large boiled salmon would now-a-days have indicated a more liberal housekeeping; but at that period, salmon was caught in such plenty in the considerable rivers of Scotland, that instead of being accounted a delicacy, it was generally applied to feed the servants, who are said sometimes to have stipulated that they should not be required to eat a food so luscious and surfeiting in its quality above five times a week.

Similar stipulations seem to have prevailed elsewhere. Travelling in the Netherlands in the 1730s, Thomas Nugent reported that ‘servants used formerly to make a bargain with their master not to be obliged to eat salmon above twice a week’.


Sketched above : SALMON WITH PEAS (salmon con guisantes) : Asturias is famous for the salmon caught in its many fast-flowing rivers. When the fish return from the Atlantic to their sprawling grounds in May, the first big catch of the season is called campanu because church bells (campanas) peal to signal its arrival. A favourite way of cooking salmon in Cangas de Onis in the Picos de Europa is with fresh green peas. Pepe Iglesias explained that the lettuce leaves, which cover the peas and the fish, produce steam that cooks the peas. Without added water the peas have a more intense, sweet flavour. [Source: The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden]


Interested in a fish tale or two? Of course you are!

  • The 10th century Byzantine compilation known as the Geoponica gives a recipe for garum, that favorite sauce of the ancient Romans:

Add a quantity of salt in the ratio of one to eight to the entrails of any small fish, such as mullets, sprats or anchovies. Allow the mixture to ferment in the sun for several months. Draw off the liquid and strain it. Use as a condiment on just about any dish you care to name.


In his Epistles, the Roman dramatist Seneca complained that garum ‘burns up the stomach with its salted putrefaction’, while the poet Martial declares, in his Epigrams, that a man who can maintain his passion for a girl who has just gobbled up six helpings of garum deserves every sort of commendation.

  • At the Chateau de Chantilly, Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, played host at a banquet for some 2000 guests, including King Louis XIV. The man in charge of the feasting was the great chef Francois Vatel. However, Vatel, a stickler for detail, was deeply distressed by a number of mishaps, culminating in the news that the large quantities of fish he had ordered – the banquet was to take place on a Friday – would not arrive in time. Unable to bear the disgrace, Vatel fixed his sword to the door of the chamber and ran himself through. According to one version of the story, the servant who found his body had come to tell him that the fish had safely arrived after all.

That’s all folks! 🙂


A Curious History of Food and Drink by Ian Crofton


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