Roger Scruton creates a perfect fish soup

NS Christmas - Roger Scruton reveals his recipe for fish soup

For those of us brought up in the postwar years, fish was the cheapest available form of protein, and was invariably cooked in ways that emphasised this to the point of unpalatability. Now that our fisheries have been pillaged to virtual extinction by people who know how to cook the spoils, our estimation of fish has been radically revised. And though this bespeaks an ecological tragedy, it has had one good side effect, which is that British cooks have learned to cook fish in ways that bring out its flavour.

Here is my recipe for fish soup, perfected over years of piscatory obsession. It doesn't require expensive ingredients, but it does require a serious fishmonger. Seriousness among fishmongers is to be gauged by the extent to which the debris left by filleting is available on request. For the essence of fish soup - and, indeed, of most fish recipes worth the labour - is stock made from bones and offcuts. The serious fishmonger will gladly relinquish these, if you also buy the more delicate products with which the soup should be finished - sea bass, monkfish and conger eel, to name but three. Avoid oily fish such as salmon, sardine, mackerel and herring, and add shellfish only if not already cooked.

The best bones for stock are those of sole, turbot and other flatfish, to which you should add, if you can find them, whole gutted gurnards: those beautiful red fish with rock-hard heads like John Prescott, to be held under the water with cries of "Down wantons, down!". To the water, add New Zealand Sauvignon which, if it comes in a screw-top bottle, deserves just this treatment. A clove of garlic, a fish stock cube or two and the juice of a lemon will bring out the flavour. If you don't have fish stock cubes, use salt - but remember that stock cubes contain masses of salt and obviate the need to add any more. After 15 minutes of gentle simmering strain the stock and carefully detach the gurnard flesh from the bones.

Now reserve sufficient stock to cook the sea bass, monkfish or whatever will constitute the solid matter in the soup. Then add peeled tomatoes to the remainder (tinned will do) and start the whole thing simmering. Add sensible quantities of turmeric, cumin and coriander, with a small quantity of chilli. When all has boiled down and is beginning to thicken, add some good olive oil, then pass through a mixer to produce an even texture. The colour should be orange: red means not enough turmeric, or too many tomatoes, or both. Meanwhile, in another pan, cook the remaining fish slowly, until the flesh can be just removed from the bones. Strain the resulting liquid into the soup, and cut the fish into agreeable shapes. When the soup has been brought to boiling point add the fillets and remove the result immediately from the heat.

The soup can be varied (and in my opinion improved) if, in a third pan, you have cooked a couple of large squid cut into rings and also simmered in stock. These will take a lot more cooking if they are not to snag the mouth like elastic bands. Once cooked, fish soup can be bottled and kept for weeks in the fridge. If thin enough it can be strained into a pan to which you may add basmati rice, to cook to a pilaf, adding the solid matter at the end. Indeed, this soup will form the starting point for a thousand other culinary adventures, and has the added virtue that children hate it and will willingly relinquish their share to the assembled cognoscenti.

Next Article