As autumn gets into full swing, there is almost nothing in the world more comforting than a piping hot fish pie, fresh from the oven and still overflowing with unctuous, fishy béchamel sauce. It is perhaps not surprising that food historians think that fish pie came from the freezing cold North of Britain – specifically, Scotland.
The Scots always have been a religious lot – probably because the local, stone-built kirk was the only building capable of protecting the people from the sideways wind and rain. Scottish Presbyterianism is a particularly grim branch of Christianity, and I would not be surprised if they took Lent very seriously indeed. It was possibly during rigid adherence to meat-free Lent that folks started to come up with different ways to cook fish.
Another theory on the origin of the fish pie is that inventive fish eating came over with the Romans, who would observe no-meat Fridays. The truth may be a combination of both stories as the Romans never really got that far into Scotland before the sideways rain made them turn back. In any case, fish pie made an appearance way before the reign of Henry I in 1100AD. King Harry would enjoy lamprey rolled over with pastry at Christmas time. Later, ever year at Lent, the people of Yarmouth are said to have sent a pie containing 100 herrings to King Edward III, who was on the throne from 1327–1377. If you make a fish pie, you can be sure you are following in the traditions of ancient British royalty.
Making a fish pie is pretty easy, but cruising the usual suspects for recipes throws up a lot of variations. If we take the fish pie to be fish, a parsley-flavoured béchamel sauce and a mashed potato topping, then recipes tend to agree (apart from the Marco Pierre White Yew Tree version, that drops the béchamel in the name of advertising for Knorr). Most cooks advocate poaching the fish in milk and then using that milk to make the béchamel. Others have discovered that a superior dish can be made by not pre-cooking the fish. Cheese is a matter of hot debate.
There is often a hen’s egg in there too. Why? I have no idea, but the egg is a great treat in a forkful of steaming, smoky fish. I like the egg.
The recipe here is a very easy one adapted from a family recipe published by ‘Jools,’ the wife of Jamie Oliver. It does not pre-cook the fish, it uses fish stock to cope with the lack of flavour in the milk, it has cheese in it, and it includes the improbable egg.
- 600g Maris Piper potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 eggs
- 25g unsalted butter
- 25g plain flour
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 170ml fish stock
- 170ml milk
- 50g Cheddar cheese, grated
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 tsp English mustard
- 1 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 350g fish made up of roughly equal quantities of cod or coley; smoked, undyed haddock (essential); and salmon or trout (I prefer trout); all are boned, skinned and cut into chunks
- 100g spinach
- 20g butter
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat an oven to 200ºC.
Boil the potatoes for 15 mins, adding the eggs for the last 8 minutes. Drain the potatoes and plunge the eggs immediately into cold water and run a cold tap over them to prevent a sulphur ring from forming.
To make the sauce, melt 25g of butter in a saucepan and add the flour. Cook the flour for a minute. Pour the milk into the stock, add the bay leaf and stir. Start to add the milky stock to the flour and butter a bit at a time, whisking until smooth after each addition. This prevents any lumps from forming.
Bring to the sauce to a light boil, turn down to simmer and cook for about 10 mins to thicken a bit more. Add the parsley, lemon juice, mustard and a third of the cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted. Season.
Wilt the spinach in a large frying pan with a small dash of water.
Arrange the fish in an oven-proof dish and season lightly (there is plenty of seasoning in the rest of the dish). Peel and quarter the eggs, and scatter them among the fish. Spread the wilted spinach over the top.
Pour over the sauce.
Mash the potatoes over the heat with 20g of butter, and add a splash of milk to cream them a little. Season and grate in some fresh nutmeg to taste. Spread the mashed potatoes over the top of the pie, and drag the surface with a fork to roughen. Scatter the remaining cheese on top.
Place the dish on a baking tray (it will bubble over) and bake in the oven for 45 mins.
Serve with boiled frozen garden peas.