When I was a teenager I quite enjoyed coarse fishing in rivers and lakes. Eventually I grew sorry for the fish, and empathy is naturally fatal to the angler. For personal consumption I turned to more primitive genera such as shrimps and cockles. The only fresh-water fish I have eaten personally are trout, eel and pike. All to my palate have a bland, slightly muddy, flavour but I know that these species are widely eaten, although pike is not really a British taste.
Tucking into the more favoured haddock and chips, during our recent holiday, made me reflect on the position of fish in the meals of our ancestors. In Britain fish was a far more important dietary item in the past than it is today. The value of fish in the medieval period is often explained as a consequence of its edibility on Christian fast days like Fridays. In fact meat was in short supply and always expensive, so I imagine that a cheaper substitute was generally welcome. There is an often quoted tale which describes the London apprentices protesting in the middle ages because they were given so much Thames salmon to eat. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this story but certainly monasteries always constructed fish ponds, with carp being a likely lucustrine species to have been cultivated in them.
My more recent contacts with fish as an item of diet has been through the medium of archaeology. Fish remains are commonly found on prehistoric sites near suitable water sources. Fish bone is lighter than mammal bone and is woody or fibrous in appearance. The bones are variable in size since fish are capable of sustained growth throughout life. A useful portion of the fish anatomy is the otolith. These are calcified portions of the inner ears of fish. There are 3 pairs per fish which grow throughout life and never decalcify. They are identifiable by age and species. The rat digestive tract is believed to destroy all fish bones but the site I knew best on Shetland did not seem to suffer from the depredations of these mammals.
Edible sea fish can conveniently be divided into white-fish (like cod and haddock) and oily fish, such as the herring, sprat and mackerel. Stockfish (Dutch: stokvis) is air-dried unsalted white fish, whereas klipfish is dried salted fish. Stockfish was a widely used product in the medieval period. Cod was the commonest fish preserved in this way but haddock and pollock were also suitable. The related saithe (also known as coley) is widely distributed across the Atlantic ocean and is very common along the entire Shetland and Norwegian coasts. When I was a boy my piano teacher boiled coley for her cat; today, together with a number of other unromantic varieties, coley is definitely considered ‘fit for human consumption’.
Historically England was commercially supplied with white-fish from a number of sources. In the early medieval period cod could be caught in the northern North Sea but by the 14th century Norway was the common source. In the 15th century and 16th centuries Iceland provided cod but by the 17th and 18th centuries the famous Newfoundland fishery was exploited. In the absence of refrigeration the trade from Newfoundland was in dried fish. The preserving technique was to hang the split cod in pairs from a frame to air dry. These frames were called flakes and were usually placed on the foreshore. The process required three months in cold dry weather (which reduces insect damage), but with little actual freezing. The Icelanders are said to have adopted air-drying, rather than salting, because salt was too expensive. I assume they lacked cheap fuel to manufacture salt from sea-water by boiling. The trade has dramatically declined in the 20th century but stockfish is still considered a delicacy in Portugal & Italy. I once met an Orkney fisherman who found it worthwhile to buy a refrigerated lorry with tanks to convey his lobster and shellfish catch to Spain so that he could benefit from the higher prices available there.
Drying and salting would adequately preserve white-fish but neither would work with oily fish. These could be pickled in brine, or smoked, to preserve them. It is difficult to exaggerate the economic importance of the herring (Clupea harengus). In the great days their shoals could number over a billion individuals. Vast numbers of boats from all the countries with Atlantic and North Sea coasts netted the ‘silver darlings’ until the early 20th century. They were the base of the 14th century prosperity of the Hanseatic league and in Shetland we were shown a large bay across which you used to be able to walk dry-shod simply by stepping from one fishing boat to the next during the herring season. Fleets of 400-500 fishing boats were not unknown. Large numbers of formidable women were employed to gut the fish and pack them with salt into barrels. After that the herrings might be consumed in Britain or Holland but there was a huge export market to Germany, Poland and Russia. So next time you toy with a kipper fillet think of the great days.