“O Lord God, when thou givest to thy servants to endevour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory…”

Sir Francis Drake

Early home-cooking attempts underwent many years of what is best described as erratic development, initially failing to evolve as widely or as deeply as I would have wished. As a solitary male teenager in a busy working household, where dull mealtimes preceded duller homework, supper was best described as perfunctory and there was precious little culinary guidance on offer. In matters of food, if nothing else, I had already begun to develop a loner’s temperament and found myself warming to the sentiments of the late Peter Cook, when he wrote “…tragically I was an only twin”.

It has to be said that my dear mother’s home cooking was best when avoided. Settling down to recall this particular family decade, I realised I had almost wiped her utilitarian weekday mealtimes from my mind. And although I cannot recall the taste of her renowned Thursday night, boiled-mince-and-peas (my father’s favourite apparently) I do remember the serried ranks of air fresheners needed to clear the residual bouquet from the house prior to the weekend. On Fridays, by way of unexpected contrast, her mastery of frozen fish fingers frequently proved to be something of an epicurian diversion.

With little in the way of culinary benchmarks at home, and no guidance whatsoever from a chauvinistic grammar school, my subsequent independent days of student-hood tended to favour nothing more inspiring than a nightly brace of slow-cooked, jacket potatoes. These hands-free, tuber-heavy suppers, did little to channel the early gastronome in me, although I suspect that had the Potato Marketing Board got wind of my unwavering diet, they would surely have sought my services as a brand influencer. If memory serves, my mother had earlier packed me off to art school armed with little more than a few tins of own-brand tomato soup, some sachets of instant mashed potato and her fond wishes. I’d be hard pressed to record this as a guiding culinary insight absorbed at her maternal knee, it had more of the ring of inherited convenience from a far more distant family – that of J Sainsbury. But with the music of time and the coming-of-age tenure of my own flat, I found myself with a fully functioning kitchen (as opposed to the earlier Baby Belling balanced on a wine crate) and began my search for excitement in the culinary unknown.

Within the many-sided life that post student years bestowed, each day was to become something of a gastronomic school day. Days that quickly revealed everything we eat and drink, like the visual art I had been absorbing for four years, carried an indispensable social tale somewhere down the line – and it began to dawn that it’s not only the great works of mankind that form our culture. But the more I sought to engage with a world of traditional culinary stories, the more I found my generation had been privy to so few of them (little change on that front I’m afraid). And I wasn’t alone among my immediate peers, although sadly it seems most of them threw in the towel somewhere along the way and by doing so helped sow the seed that was later to become the ‘convenience-food generation’.

Regrettably that’s a generational drift we’re paying for in a number of unexpected ways.

Pursuing bona fide menus (as opposed to the ersatz, the fashionable, the lazy or the egocentric) which were often drowning in an endless sea of cookery publications and a media-led culinary fog, eventually provided the opportunity to find one’s feet in the kitchen and one’s confidence in facing the stove.

Initially taking control of basic meat cookery, thanks to Sophie Grigson’s encyclopedic Meat Course a publication that followed the wonderful Channel 4 series in 1995, later easing hesitantly into self-contained vegetable cookery (a chapter in life I came to value more, once the garden began providing fresh ingredients). Astonishingly, ‘soups various’ came rather late to the party, ultimately inspired by Lindsey Bareham’s authoritative A Celebration of Soup. Very early curry experiments, courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking, proved reasonably successful and regularly exciting, and today I’m not sure as to whether my ancient yellowing Penguin paperback is tinged more by turmeric than sunlight. Meanwhile Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cookbook assisted with early pasta research, although not unlike the boundless Japanese alphabet I am still learning what each pasta shape is called and where to incorporate it most beneficially. Later still, the significant saffron-cinnamon axis of Moorish Spain was deciphered by the contextually rich cookbooks of London’s Moro restaurant. Further east, a diaphanous veil was lifted from the enigma of Thai cuisine with the discovery of Bhumichitir Vatcharin’s Soho kitchen, Chaing Mai (now sadly closed) although his subsequent recipe book, The Taste of Thailand, remains highly treasured and frequently open. No idea why Thai cuisine was favoured before Chinese cooking, but the ensuing purchase of a wok, and Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking, along with the discovery of London’s Chinatown and its mystifying range of ingredients (many recognised more by Braille than translation) provided a welcome induction into Sichuan cuisine.

I would have loved to join the deferential ranks of earlier food writers in crediting any shards of kitchen acumen to those latter-day Joan of Arcs: Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, but the bulk of French cuisine was woefully late in grabbing my attention. Although drawn by an early fascination with the Gallic antics of the Roux Brothers on TV, not even their unreconstructed Johnny Hallyday accents or imperious lower lips, managed to turn me into a kitchen Francophile back then. And most regrettably, my arrival at Richard Olney’s fabled doorstep was still a long way off. That seminal boat, in the episodic form of Time-Life’s The Good Cook and the subsequent French Menu Cookbook, had yet to be rocked. Traditional English cookery too, still hid in distant exile, probably due to my mother’s lifelong determination to sabotage this  aspect of global gastronomy, but eventually the light was switched on by Gary Rhodes and his New British Classics, later illuminated brightly by Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tale Eating.

It appeared that not only had I started my culinary adventures in the wrong order, I had probably started in the wrong countries.

Gaining courage in a kitchen took time and produced numerous upsets. But through a bevy of indifferent outcomes I realised that the procedure of cooking alongside the culture and traditions associated with its serving, often provided more fascination than the consumption of the resultant dish, a bell that rang clearly when reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes noting,I travel not to go anywhere, but just to go”.

So, from the recent bounty of such globally inclusive recipe books (of which my family are keen to point out that I have collected far more than my fair share), one aspect of my home cooking infuriatingly manages to drag its feet.

No matter what its country of origin, fish cuisine still remains a work in progress.

These days, Coq au Vin, Welsh Cawl, Roast Pork lo Mein, Cocido Extrameña, Tagliatelle al Ragu, or Lamb Shawarma are likely to be treated as effortlessly as the provision of a soft boiled egg with toasted soldiers. But set me on a dinner majoring in fish (of any species, from any country) and anxiety as tangible as sea-mist steals silently under the kitchen door. And whereas my timing for a soufflé, a Roghan Josh, a batch of meringues or a noisette of lamb might display a subliminal grip as certain as the phases of the moon, when it comes to first-rate fish cookery, an innate grasp of the spacetime-kitchen-continuum can often elude me. Delicate nuance and precise duration are fishy concepts yet to settle in my otherwise regular kitchen practices. T.S.Eliot must have foreseen my lack of certainty when he wrote “Between idea and the reality, Between the motion and the act, Falls the Shadow”

And speaking of the idea and the motion, long before I even flip the pages of an early Rick Stein magnum opus, a visit to the fishmongers displays a poor attempt at feigned intelligence likely to find me nodding sagely rather than prompting the simplest of nautical questions. So poor is my presentation of seafaring insight, that John, a local and eminently patient fishmonger, frequently steps in to orchestrate the performance – I suspect more out of sympathy than commercial benefit. Mind you, his perfectly formed sea bass were close to perfection.

So, still a way to go before Francis Drake’s “true glory”, but on the basis that it’s never too late to claim the appropriate expertise, I can but fall back on the immortal words of another national hero, Winston Churchill (whose oft requested “good companions”  were, coincidentally, cod and chips), and just continue “buggering on”.

This dish from Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun (2018) – well written and very well tested – did manage to provide some esteem when it reached the table. And if it worked for me – yours will doubtless be a triumph.

2 medium sea bass (approx 300g each)

2 small mild green chillies, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves crushed

6 tbsp lemon juice

Finely grated zest 0f 2 un-waxed lemons

1 tsp ground cumin

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

15g coriander, roughly chopped

With a sharp knife, score both sides of the fish with diagonal lines about 2 cms apart, cutting down to the bone

Place all other ingredients, except the oil and coriander, in a mortar and pestle, seasoning with ¼ tsp each of salt and pepper, and smash them into a course paste

Stir in 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Using your fingers, smear 1 tbsp of the paste over each fish on both sides, making sure you get it into the incisions

Divide the coriander between the fish cavities, then leave to marinate for 10 minutes

Preheat the grill to medium-high, then place the fish on a baking tray and drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil

Cook under the grill for 12-14 minutes, turning once and drizzling over more oil when you do, until just cooked through

When you press your finger on the thickest part, just behind the gills, you should feel the fillet coming away from the bones

Serve the remaining marinade on the side

Wine Thoughts

In the white wine appellation of France, in the eastern region of the Loire known as Sancerre, vine roots force their way down into Kimmeridgian limestone later releasing mineral rich flavours, slicked with a racy, cut-grass bouquet, a palate of fresh spring flowers and an unmistakable zesty finish. Perfect to balance the hot chilli spike and the citrus hit as you chomp through the delicately spiced flesh of the sea-bass.