So, how did we get from an abysmal (sorry, Longhorn fans, it was horrible!) football game to fish heads? Well, it happened like this. I few days ago I prepared dinner after a recipe in the German lady’s journal ‘Brigitte‘, from which I receive a daily recipe by email. This one was a simple affair, consisting of poached Kabeljau or cod in a creamy mustard sauce. To round it out, I added some fennel, onion, green pepper corns, capers and an elderly, red sweet pepper to the mix. BTW, does one get raked over the coals these days for calling an e-publication a lady’s journal?
There was quite a bit of leftover base with some flaked cod bits, so the next step was pretty much a given. Go back to the fishmonger, buy some more fish and make soup. Said, done – well, not really!
At the market I committed the grave mistake of asking for advice, which I promptly received in spades. Ah! Madame wants to prepare fish soup. She will need a nice, large fish head, and one of this, one of that, maybe two or three more of … as he was speaking, he reach into bins and trays assembling a small mountain of glistening fish before me ever widening eyes. But monsieur, I stuttered, there are only two of us and I never intended to cook, to cook from scratch … my voice trailed off, because he looked so sad and uncomprehending. The words to explain my predicament, the words explaining to him that I already had half of my fish soup at home, that I just wanted to put some more fish, really any fish, as far as I was concerned, in this preexisting soup, were gurgeling down the drain of his fish gutting sink, as he lovingly prepared my never uttered order. He was puzzled about my reluctance to buy all the fish he had selected, so he whittled it down to three and added another head, to assure my poor soup had enough substance. I took the heavy sack, placed it in my rolling cart ad trudged home with a heavy heart. Fish soup from scratch?
My involuntary fish purchase, which cost me only about $7, including 300g or 11oz of nice, fat shrimp, didn’t look all that overwhelming any more, all lined up and ready to go on my kitchen counter.
After shelling and beheading the shrimp and cleaning the fish, I dumped all the exoskeletons and heads with some aromatics in cold water and let the whole mess come to the boiling point, at which point I added two store-bought flavor gobs, may Ms. Child forgive me, placed the fish in the stock and let it simmer on very low for an hour.
The most labor intensive part of the preparation followed cooking the stock. Picking the meat off all those carcasses took some time and dedication! Fortunately I’m neither squeamish, nor lacking in advanced anatomical knowledge. After a lifetime of dissecting a range of specimen from helicidae to Homo sapiens (as an anatomy instructor, not a grave robber. Jeez), I managed to salvage the maximal amount of fish bits possible off the bones, returning my bounty to the strained soup, which I had combined with the above mentioned leftovers.
And what do you think, gave me the courage to snap my fingers and cook my very first fish soup from scratch? I think, it was the spirit of the Barrier family, a family of ‘poissoniers’ or fishmongers, who owned our house for almost a hundred year before us. We bought our home last April from a party, who had only owned it for a few years. During the purchasing process, we were advised about a number of points in the history of the house. We were told that it’s foundation sits on the medieval town ramparts and also that we need to get permission from the National Architect’s Office for any external changes. We were, naturally, duly impressed. Nobody mentioned to us specific prior owners, until we happened upon one of their descendents.
You see, modern-day necessities weigh heavily against historical lore, no matter how intriguing. Our house doesn’t have a garage, nor is there any reasonable long-term parking in walking distance. But since we’re away from Saintes for several months each year, we need a place to store our car.
After our offer for the house had been accepted, we were walking around our future neighborhood and I noticed a garage for sale just steps from our prospective front door. I wrote down the phone number and gradually screwed up my courage to dial the darn thing. If you’ve never had to deal with life in a foreign country, you’ll be hard pressed to understand these gut wrenching attempts, to try to have a conversation on the telephone. I’ve had to deal with this for almost 40 years and there’re still times, when I just plain can’t understand the disembodied voice coming through the speaker. For all those years, it was English that I had to sort out over the phone. Now it’s French. French. A language, only people actually raised in French-speaking countries can understand. If I have a living being in front of me, I can try to lip-read, I can read facial expressions, I can try to interpret body language, I can fake my way through many situations, but there’s no way in hell I can comprehend a French telephone conversation. Yet, we needed a garage for our car. So I called.
The gentleman on the other end was very patient with me. He wanted to sell his garage, but might consider a rental also, I believed him to say. His asking price for the garage was much too high for us – after all, we had just bought a house. Monsieur suggested for me to look at his garage, after we had moved in. True to his word, he rang our new doorbell on the chaotic first day after our move-in. I stepped out with him in my disheveled state, all the while trying to tell him that there was no point in my viewing his garage, since we couldn’t buy it anyway. But he, very serenely, proceeded to shoo me along. Just have a look, that won’t hurt, will it, he said. Knowing, that I really wanted his garage, but couldn’t afford it, I just came along, without really coming along – if you know, what I mean.
Before I could backpedal into my doorway after seeing the garage, he stopped me. There’s something, I want to show you, he said. He placed his briefcase on the hood of his car and pulled out a document. It was an old legal file containing the documents of his grandparent’s purchase contract on ‘our’ house in the early twentieth century. I want you to have this, he said. At least, I that’s what I thought he said. It was true. To may great astonishment, Monsieur Barrier presented me with this precious family document, which now lives with my grandmother’s books, well protected behind the glass panes of my antique cabinet de bibelots. Monsieur also brought a photo album to our rendezvous and we browsed through the pages together. I took a quick snapshot of a snapshot showing his grandfather and his papá in front of our house, as it was then – not so very different from today!
Looking at Quai de la République from across the Charente river, with la cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Saintes looming over our house.
A few weeks after our first meeting, we saw Monsieur Barrier again. He had just sold his garage. But he had made it a condition that we were offered first right of refusal to rent it from the new owner. Sweet man!