Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Concerning flat-fish

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2727665Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — Concerning flat-fishes
1863Astley Henry Baldwin


The varieties of the peculiar “genre” of fish comprised under the above denomination are so many, that to treat of them individually under separate heads would occupy too much space, and perhaps be not altogether acceptable to the bulk of miscellaneous readers.

In some of my previous papers I have had occasion to remark on the inexhaustibility of the subject of “fish,” and indeed the flat-fish of our seas are as a tribe so numerous and interesting, as to be well worthy of a paper to themselves. I shall attempt to deal with only a few of them, and accordingly commence with that prime favourite the Sole.

Soles are well known and numerous in nearly all the salt waters of the globe, and it is but fair to add are everywhere appreciated. They are caught in “trawl-nets,” a species of fishing which I have before explained in detail, and so great is the demand for them by all classes of society that with the single exception of herrings (and of course sprats), soles stand at the head of the list of fish furnished to the metropolis.

Notwithstanding the apparent smallness of mouth of the sole, it manages to swallow shell-fish, several of which I have taken from a very large fish, measuring two feet two inches and a quarter in length, and caught near Dover. They were small shell-fish of the cockle variety, and about the size of horse-beans, or a little larger. This sole also contained some small particles of a very delicate and fibrous sea-weed.

Calais and Dunkirk are famous for their fine soles, which however I do not think are so favourite an article of food with the French as with our own working classes.

The sole is to be found on a sandy or muddy bottom, the reason of which is obvious.

For sweetness and flavour the small soles or “slips” are superior to the larger ones, but a dish of hot fillets cut from a large thick sole and fried in fine crumbs of bread with an egg, is one of which the equal is hardly to be found, especially when your anchovy sauce is good, and your shrimp ditto well flavoured. A boiled sole, though often seen at table, is, I think, a “mistake,” as would be a boiled smelt or sprat.

Besides Calais and Dunkirk, which places I have before alluded to as furnishing fine soles, Rouen and Dieppe are always found well supplied with this fish, and most of our own Channel ports, Dover, Folkestone, &c., produce them abundantly.

The Hollibut grows often to an enormous size, and I am told has been known to exceed eighty pounds in weight when taken in the North Sea. The fish is in appearance a kind of compromise between the flounder and the turbot, though greatly exceeding both in size, indeed the flounder bears about the same proportion to the hollibut as the chaffinch does to the pheasant. Considerable quantities of hollibut are taken off the Orkney and Shetland Isles, on the lines employed for cod-fishing. Great numbers of skate, tusk, ling, coal-fish, and others are also thus caught. The baits are pieces of fresh herring or mackerel, and shell-fish such as clams or whelks. The hollibut taken are usually cut in pieces and dried and smoked at peat fires. Hollibut may often be seen exposed for sale on the fishmongers’ slabs in the metropolis, but the greater portion of those taken are consumed either by the fishermen themselves, or by the country people of the surrounding districts.

The Turbot is taken with the hook and net, those caught with the hook being the best fish. Turbot are taken in large numbers off Holland and our Yorkshire coast. They are also taken occasionally off all the Channel ports. When the fishery is carried on with hooks, it is pursued in boats called cobles, at least generally so, and the lines employed for taking the fish are similar to those used in the cod-fishery, the hooks being smaller and not so stout. The bait for turbot is the one so attractive to all sorts of salt-water fish, viz., a piece of fresh herring or mackerel. Immense quantities of whiting are taken on the turbot lines, and I have seen them run as heavy as two, three, and four pounds in weight, such as a Londoner has never or rarely seen. I mean real whiting, for it is a fact, that codling are sold in great quantities for whiting to the uninitiated; and let me add, that the flesh of the codling so resembles that of the whiting, that it must be a good judge who could detect the imposture; of course, while the skin of the codling remains on, it would betray the fish, but they are skinned and prepared for cooking with the tail curled round through the eyes, whiting-fashion, and so “made up” they are sent to market and sold in thousands as fine “hook-whiting.” Turbot lines have from 1500 to 3000 hooks on them on the average. That is not each line, but the entire set or “fleet” put together. A “fleet” of lines consists of many single lines put together, and kept in their place beneath the strong run of the current in the same manner as are cod lines. Turbot run sometimes to a great size, and usually lie in deep water with a smooth bottom.

Fine turbot are caught at Torbay, and the coasts of Cornwall and Yorkshire send many to the metropolitan markets. It is only in large cities that there is a ready sale for this fish, as it is by no means a cheap article of food. For my own part, I think turbot overrated fish; but, it is reasonable to suppose, that their noble appearance has done something for their reputation. It is rarely that this fish has any fair chance of being duly appreciated, as it is mostly served up at large dinner-parties, where twenty or thirty people have to be helped, and where only two or three can get their fish hot. All fish are apt to spoil, and get sodden and insipid as they cool.

Although much sought after for dinners of ceremony, yet the turbot, strictly speaking, cannot be termed a “popular” fish, as its comparative scarcity, and consequent high price, confine it exclusively to the tables of the “well-to-do.” The largest turbot that I ever saw weighed about eighteen pounds, but they occasionally run higher. This fish was taken in the Channel, and I saw it alive in the well of a cod-smack, it having been taken on the cod-lines. It was brought to Billingsgate, and died, of course, when the boat got into fresh water. I did not hear the price given for this fish.

The Brill is mostly caught in the “trawl-nets,” and is by some preferred to the turbot. Brill are used as a dinner-dish when they are of good size, and they sometimes fetch a high price. Shrimp sauce is eaten with them, which is, in fact, the proper sauce for all sea-fish, except mackerel, salmon, and turbot. The brill is a very delicate fish, and dies very soon after being taken out of the water. I was once at sea in a “trawling-boat,” when a great glut of brill was taken, and we had more than fifty that fetched from four to six shillings a-piece, besides a great quantity of soles, and one of the finest turbots that I ever saw.

The brill likes deep water with a sandy bottom, and it does not so much affect the companionship of its relations, as do the sole, dab, and plaice. On the contrary, it is somewhat an “exclusive.” With the Spaniards and Italians, I have observed brill to be much esteemed; and as both are Catholic nations, and, consequently, fish-eaters to a great extent, I do not think that to be a bad test of its popularity.

The brill is a handsome fish, closely resembling the turbot, but marked on the back with small “pepper and salt” spots, in a beautiful “mottled” fashion. Fine brill are taken in the Channel, and Newhaven, Scarborough, and Filey produce the best I have seen. The brill is not so thick or heavy as the turbot, and the white of the belly has a more transparent appearance than that of the latter, the belly of which is literally like snow; whereas that of the brill, if I may use a curious simile, more nearly resembles “tissue-paper.”

I cannot, however, spare more space for notes on this fish, and will speak of a member of the tribe, which in its importance as a cheap article of food for the poor, is only second to the herring. I allude to the Plaice.

Like all other flat-fish, plaice are chiefly caught in the net; but I have taken them very often with a hand-line. The great, noble Dutch plaice is a magnificent and handsome fellow—far handsomer than any others of the family—and plaice, either boiled or fried, are by no means so insipid as some assert, that is, if they are in proper season. The very large ones, cut in strips, or fillets, fried in fine bread crumbs, and served with fennel, or shrimp sauce, are white, delicate, and excellent. Always use a little Harvey sauce with your melted butter, and if you do not like plaice so cooked, you are not of my opinion. The finest plaice come from the coasts of Yorkshire, Kent, and Holland. The North Sea plaice are superb. As do his cousins, the plaice likes a smooth muddy bed, but he will frequent rocky inlets where prawns abound, of which “crustacea” he is very fond.

Flat-fish, when they are on the feed (which operation they perform side-ways, on account of the peculiar formation of their mouths), are most extraordinary objects; but I will not ridicule the plaice, which, from his interesting and sagacious habits, has always been a favourite fish with me. Plaice have broader fins than most flat-fish, and a large plaice, just out of the sea, grandly flapping his fan-like fringe, is really a noble fish. They are adorned on the back with bright orange spots, about the size of split peas, and their eyes are more prominent than those of the other class of this genus, the eyes of the sole being the least so of all. The plaice is gregarious, and I have taken from four to six score with a hand-line, on the same spot, in a few hours, catching them two and two (hand-lines have always two hooks), as fast as I could pull them in and re-bait. The bait I used was a “log-worm,” which is dug out of muddy bays at low water, and bears a curious resemblance to a hairy caterpillar. It is a very killing bait, as no salt-water fish will refuse it. The price of these worms is about a shilling per hundred.

Plaice should be eaten within a few hours of being caught. They are not as good if kept longer. Londoners have no idea whatever of what a plaice should be.

Plaice, when they are on a good feeding-ground, run to considerable size, and attain great thickness. In choosing them for the table take short, thick fish in preference to the larger ones, and note that this rule holds good with all fish but soles. A thin, or, to use a more expressive word, a “lanky” plaice is poor at best, and a “lanky” cod is positively detestable. The fishermen term such, “razors” and “hospital fish,” the latter epithet being, in my judgment, very apt and expressive.

I leave the plaice reluctantly, but I am warned by considerations of space to pass on to the Dab, which is an entirely distinct fish, though often sold for the plaice to ignorant persons. The dab is of the same shape, but smaller than the plaice, and has no orange spots on its back, that portion of its body being of a dirty brown, and presenting none of the beautiful mottled attractions of the plaice. Further, the back-skin of the plaice is soft and fine, whilst that of the dab is coarse and rough, and, passing the hand backwards down it, feels to the touch precisely like a nutmeg-grater. (Let the reader, if opportunity present, try this curious experiment.) Dabs are caught in the same way as plaice. The dab is a favourite fish with the fishermen, and is usually dried by them in the sun, and eaten after a few days’ interval. I know of many worse morsels for a breakfast relish than a hot grilled dab with coffee and muffins, whether the fish be fresh or smoked. Such a breakfast has often been my choice, and I hope will be so again.

Dismissing the dab with this well-deserved commendation, let me give a “letter-of-credit” to that pretty but very common little fish the flounder.

Flounders possess the convenient capability of living either in fresh or salt water, and they strike a compromise by preferring those places where the water is neither one thing nor the other, that is to say, at the mouth of great rivers. The flounder, like the eel, literally revels in mud, and he is a very lively, engaging little fellow.

Somehow or other, though the “take” of flounders is very large, we rarely see that fish on our tables, except in the form of water-souchet, once a year, at Greenwich or Blackwall. I am quite unable to explain this phenomenon. The flounder is an artful little gentleman, and I once saw one fairly beat a dangerous enemy in a most amusing fashion. It was in this wise:—Standing one day whilst the tide was going out, on the pier of a pretty watering-place in the Isle of Thanet (Broadstairs), I saw a water-rat—they abound in old piers—dive into about three feet of water after a mud-flounder, which positively dodged him more than a minute, and ultimately inserted itself into a crack or crevice of the old woodwork of the pier where it lay as on a ledge, and the rat could not introduce so much as a paw. After watching the curious spectacle some ten minutes (the rat all the while watching both myself and the flounder), I was so pleased with the sagacity shown by the prisoner, that I pelted the great whiskered robber away, and rescuing the little fish from its forced retreat, took it out to deep water and security. It is not often one has the good fortune to witness a striking piece of sagacity on the part of a fish.

Flounders often come a long way up our rivers, and I have seen them taken in mill-ponds. Some years ago I saw some taken at Reading in the eel-pots, and I once caught two with a red worm when fishing for gudgeon (for live-bait to be used in jack-fishing) at Henley-on-Thames.

Holland, a remarkably good country for most sorts of fish, abounds in the small mud-flounder, which is a pretty little fish, rather more oval in shape than the dab or plaice, and with a clear white belly and a dark mottled back.

It is curious how easily both flounders and eels will accommodate themselves to either salt or fresh water, and still more so that the flounder, like the salmon, will find his way to the sea, and after a while return to the same river from which he came. Instances of this are so well authenticated as to be beyond dispute. Fish mostly seem to affect particular localities, and I have known river perch (where two or three rivers joined) taken from some favourite haunt, still persist when restored to the water in returning to the especial river in which they were bred. This was proved by cutting a small piece off the tail, or one fin, and after some time netting the ground from which the fish had originally been taken, when twelve out of seventeen so marked were found to have come back to their old haunts, and this notwithstanding the perch is by nature a roving fish. These perch were of course much grown, but there was the mark.

Flounders are often brought many miles overland to market without any manifest annoyance or injury to them, and I have known them to remain in dry natural ponds in the rocks until the returning tide once more brought them a supply of salt water. With the exception of the eel, the most tenacious of life of all fish, the plaice, flounder, carp, and perch live longest out of their native element, whilst the whiting, mackerel, herring, and dace die soonest, the mackerel and herring expiring immediately they quit the water.

Although not able, under the heading of “flatfish,” to find space to enter in detail into the varied peculiarities of the Skate family, I can hardly pass them over altogether. The best known variety of this species is the great black skate of our sea-coasts, a hideous fish sometimes growing to a great size. This skate is caught both in trawl-nets and on long lines, and is a favourite dish with some people “crimped” and boiled. The black skate, though stupid-looking, is a crafty, spiteful fish, and great caution is necessary in handling it, as it is capable, with a single “nip” of its sharp teeth, of biting a man’s finger to the bone. I have known amputation of the finger imperative, owing to a wound caused by a skate of this species.

The second variety of the skate is of much less size, and is spotted and marbled on the back in rather a handsome way. This variety is known as the “roker,” and is caught frequently on cod-lines as well as in the sole net. I have myself taken many skates on the “long line” with a herring bait.

There are other varieties, such as the “thorn-back,” “maid,” sand-ray, &c., but I have only space to mention a monstrous variety called the sting-ray, which grows to a great size, and is of no use whatever either for sport or food. I have sometimes caught them on the hand-line, and once hooked one of a size so enormous, that I own I was afraid to handle it, and cut it adrift from the line—but I have said enough of a variety of flatfish not particularly interesting.

I must not close this paper without alluding to a bastard kind of sole known as the “Mary-sole,” or sole-dab, which partakes of the nature of both dab and sole, but rather resembles the latter than the former. It is considered exceedingly choice eating; but I know little of its history or habits, as it is a shy fish and comparatively scarce. I will conclude with a hope that this paper may be found to possess some interest for both the ichthyologist and the general reader.

Astley H. Baldwin.