Quiz time. David Beckham and arguably the finest 18th century Falstaff – what have they in common? Answer: a fierce looking fish bearing the thumbprint of St Peter.
Back in 2015 Becks took a then teenage Brooklyn fishing off Dorset. There’s a picture of the pair proudly brandishing their catch – the second biggest John Dory ever landed on that particular boat, the skipper told them. That might make it 3kg. It’s hard to tell given the bizarre body. This delicious expensive fish is certainly no looker. So thin, head on it is nigh invisible as it sneaks up on prey, rapidly sucking up the likes of shrimp and squid.
Those distinctive black marks on either side of its dark olive yellow body, clustered with spines? Supposedly they are the thumb and finger-prints of Apostle Peter, who snatched the fish out of the Sea of Galilee and removed a gold coin from its mouth to pay taxes he owed. Its Latin name is Zeus Faber. So godlike connections but that hasn’t saved it from nicknames. The French traditionally dubbed it ‘l’horrible’ or “poulet de mer”. One theory from a certain Jules Verne has its proper name springing from ‘janitore’, St Peter’s role at the gates of Heaven, but it’s more than likely an anglicisation of Jaune Doré (golden yellow).
It certainly shone brightly for the Irish-born Shakespearean actor James Quin, maybe bested as Lear to David Garrick but a legendary champion of the John Dory’s merits. When asked what sauce suited its surprisingly fleshy fillets he responded by announcing the banns of marriage between ‘delicate Ann Chovy, and good John Dory’.
You’ll find the tomb of this maverick ham, accused of both murder and manslaughter in his roistering prime, in the Abbey Church, Bath. Where, as quoted by Alan Davidson in his scholarly North Atlantic Seafood, “Quin’s celebrity as the prince of epicures was well known, and where his palate finished its voluptuous career.”
So a man after my own heart. I’ve been been basking in a kind of John Dory afterglow since acquiring, at Wellgate Fisheries, Clitheroe, the best specimen I’ve ever had. Carefully avoiding those nasty barbs, owner Giles Shaw filleted it from its heavy bones and substantial head, which later yielded a perfect fumet for a paella.
Just 40 per cent of body weight left, but what to do with the slightly sticky but firm flesh? The mercurial Quin recommended poaching in sea water and serving with a lobster or shrimp sauce, according to Davidson, who suggests cider and cream might be the way to go. Instead I reverted to Mistress Ann Chovy and followed the Mitch Tonks recipe for Grilled Dory with Anchovy Vinaigrette, replacing the customary braised fennel (a sprinkle of fennel pollen sufficing) with steamed spinach. I also scattered over a few mussels from the batch destined for the paella. Thanks to the quality of fish it was the equal of the dish we ate at Tonks’ flagship, The Seahorse, on Dartmouth Embankment. https://seahorserestaurant.co.uk
By all means follow my lead but wait until autumn. John Dory is not on any endangered quota, but breeding season is May to August… You can purchase it online from Tonks’ own Rockfish Seafood Market. Another good John Dory source is Trident Fresh Fish Or maybe give Giles a ring and enjoy the drive up to Clitheroe to collect.
Eliza Acton noted in Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) that John Dory, “though of uninviting appearance is considered by some persons as the most delicious fish that appears at table”. I concur heartily.
GRILLED DORY WITH ANCHOVY VINAIGRETTE AND BRAISED FENNEL
150 ml /¼ pt olive oil
150 ml/ ¼ pt white wine vinegar
150 ml/ ¼ pt white wine
2 bay leaves
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 sliced lemon
1 small onion, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
3 Florence fennel bulbs
John Dory fillets – they will vary in size but allow about 180g / 6 oz per person
For the anchovy vinaigrette:
6 salted anchovy fillets
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
100 ml double cream
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Squeeze of lemon
Pre-heat the oven to 175C. First braise the fennel by gently heating the olive oil, wine vinegar, wine, bay leaf, fennel seeds and coriander seeds in a pan. Then add the sliced lemon, onion, sliced garlic and fennel. Cover and cook in the oven for about an hour until the fennel is tender. Remove from the oven and allow to cool at room temperature in the braising liquid.
Make the anchovy vinaigrette by pounding the anchovy fillets in a pestle and mortar. Then put the mustard in a bowl with the vinegar and whisk together slowly adding the olive oil until those the three ingredients emulsify. Then add the anchovy paste and gently whisk in the cream. Add the parsley, a squeeze of lemon and plenty of black pepper.
Heat the grill then brush the John Dory fillets with a little olive oil and season with salt. Grill for 6-7 minutes until lightly golden.
To serve put two or three chunks of braised fennel and onion mixture on a plate, place the fish alongside and drizzle with the anchovy vinaigrette.