Some years ago our son announced that he would, in line with previous years, be joining us in Norfolk for the Christmas period. On this particular occasion he would be bringing his delightful new partner – disconcertingly called Charlotte. I say disconcertingly, solely because we already own a daughter of that name and she had plans to join us too. Over the telephone he had spoken fondly of this supplemental Charlotte and, as no faults appeared to undermine the flattering character traits he described, I gathered that this was a romance of some consequence. So with our guest suitably accorded more than usual importance, we welcomed the forthcoming meeting with only the slightest hint of trepidation. As was later shared, she was feeling much the same way, but given our diverse family members she could be forgiven for that.

As I am frequently reminded, our Christmas lunches have traditionally managed to provide a comestible supply way in excess of any sensible domestic demands, so additional guests provide little challenge to the kitchen.

As a prologue, I started the run-up unfazed.

That is until the arrival of an email directing that our new guest had long ago transitioned to vegetarianism. Although fish remained firmly on the agenda, meat clearly did not, and given that a seven kilo Norfolk Black turkey had been reserved some months earlier and by now would have made the ultimate sacrifice, an amended kitchen schedule was needed to suit all parties.

In previous decades, having hosted a number of New Year’s eve dinners with other meat-free friends arriving from London, I had learnt that even an innocuous stock pot has to be forensically examined and ingredients rigorously scrutinized prior to service (lest one forget, even some red wines were once clarified with dried animal blood). I had also learnt that poorly conceived ‘80’s standby dishes – parsimonious fish pie, any slightly suppurating cauliflower cheese or the ubiquitous nut roast – should generally be regarded as unfit for purpose. Fortunately such dishes had been increasingly surpassed, and, it must be said, my Brazilian fish stew, Moqueca, moved into myth and legend one particular year, and if rumour is correct it remains subject to discussion in our capital city to this day.

So given that the turkey and all associated trimmings required careful planning in one corner, an additional fish dish of some seasonal stature, created without tangible anxiety, had to occupy the other. A resilient dish, neither casserole nor carpaccio, was needed. Something that could be prepared in advance yet did not require grilling to nano-second accuracy, a dish that stood soundly and gave purpose to the day.

Naturally I did what every recipe book advises against when guests are invited – and chose a dish I had never cooked before. Not only did I choose the risky option, I also added the unnecessary inconvenience of tracing its heritage back to the late 16th century. Unbeknownst to me, an almost exact period being studied at the Courtauld Institute by our guest at that time. Culinary synchronicity, or what?

I started with Rick Stein’s  opus, Seafood (2001) with an unattributed recipe for a Salmon en Croûte with currants and ginger, then back to Jane Grigson’s Salmon in Pastry from her English Food (1974) where she credits the recipe to George Perry-Smith’s Hole-in-the-Wall restaurant in Bath during the fifties and sixties. From there I found his source to be The Good Housewife’s Jewel (1596) by Thomas Dawson citing “How to bake a “Joll” [a jowl, head and shoulders of fresh salmon], “Take ginger and salt, and season it, and certaine currans, and cast them about and under it, and let the paste be fine, and take a little butter and lay it about the paste, and set it in the oven for two houres”. A seasoned dish of Moorish influence I suspect, but by now I had become a little tired of my own gastro-archeology.

How could I turn this challenge down? Well I didn’t, but I did follow Rick rather than Thomas as my grasp of Elizabethan English and the beat of contemporaneous iambic pentameter requires some improvement. Added to which, “two houres” for salmon held the promise of almost certain immolation.

But it turned out to have become a convenient 21st century recipe and was met with modest praise. The dish you see was well suited to the time of year. The technical enfolding of salmon in puff pastry had a lot in common with the assorted present wrapping that had taken place up until then, and although my gift-packaging has never won awards for elegance, at this point in the proceedings I had at least got my eye in. The dexterity of my salmon parcel made the turkey trimmings look positively unkempt.

By way of a delightful epilogue son and partner are set to marry, so I’ve long since nurtured the idea that my Early Modern period en croute went a long way to help seal that particular deal.

Salmon en Croûte with sultanas/currants and ginger

2 x 550 gm pieces of skinned salmon fillet, taken from behind the gut cavity of a 3 – 4 kg fish

100 gm unsalted butter, softened

4 pieces of stem ginger in syrup – well drained and finely diced

25 gm sultanas or currants

1/2 tsp ground mace

750 gm chilled puff pastry

1 egg, beaten, to glaze

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C / 400°F / Gas Mark 6, and put a large baking sheet in the oven to heat up.

Season the salmon fillet well with salt. Mix the softened butter with the stem ginger, sultanas, mace, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and black pepper.

Spread the inner face of one salmon fillet evenly with the butter mixture and then lay the second fillet on top.

Cut the pastry in half and roll one piece out on a lightly floured work surface into a rectangle about 4 cm bigger than the salmon all the way around.

Roll the second piece out into a rectangle 5 cm larger than the first piece of pastry all the way round.

Lay the smaller rectangle of pastry on a well-floured baking sheet and place the salmon in the centre.

Brush a wide band of beaten egg around the salmon and lay the second piece of pastry on top, taking care not to stretch it.

Press the pastry tightly around the outside of the salmon, trying to ensure that you have not trapped in too much air, then press the edges together well.

Trim the edges of the pastry neatly, to leave a 2.5 cm band all the way around.

Brush this once more with egg.

Mark the edge with the tines of a fork, and decorate the top with a fish scale effect by pressing an upturned teaspoon gently into the pastry, working in rows down the length of the parcel or use scraps of pastry to decorate.

Chill for at least an hour in the fridge.

Remove the salmon en croute from the fridge and brush it all over with the beaten egg.

Take the hot baking sheet out of the oven and carefully slide the salmon parcel on to it.

Return to the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove and leave it to rest for 5 minutes.

Transfer the salmon to a warm serving plate and serve immediately

Wine thoughts

A Premier Cru Chablis if the occasion allows. Ours certainly did. Just ditch the Premier and the Cru and go for a working Chablis if not. However there can be few more exciting gastronomic pleasures than pairing accessible, down-to-earth food with wonderfully honed wines. This delightful pick offered cool crisp flavours tempered by a background earthiness, later morphing into a mouthful of hazelnuts and freshly baked bread, rich with delicate hints of  honey. A swathe of scintillating acidity cut through the plump, sweet flesh of the salmon, finally mingling with the warming notes of stem ginger. A deeply satisfying and sharpening combo in equal measure.