I was born in a coastal city yet fish was not a big part of our diet. The number of times we children ate fish was limited. The fish we ate at home was fillets of smoked cod. When mum prepared it she cooked it in a white sauce with some onion. Another common name for this sauce is Mornay Sauce. To the French it is know as Béchamel sauce. Not that the milky substance Mum cooked was anything like a rich Béchamel common to French cooking.
In her case I imagine it’s role was to act as a filler. For, as history tells us, it’s original common name was Glue sauce. Served as it was the sauce disguised the salty fish we were dished. Cooked this way the smoked fillets were boneless and tender. When it came to fish our preference was to eat fillets because served that way bones were eliminated. On a rare, very rare occasion, we ate fish from a Fish and Chip shop.
Fish and chips were the most popular takeaway meals one could buy in the 1950’s. Nearly every town, or hamlet, had a local Fish and Chip shop. The fish was nearly always fried Flake served with a handful of potato chips (three pence worth of chips.) When the family ate this way we possibly had sixpence worth. (Potatoes were most commonly cheap. It was only in times when farmers failed to grow a decent crop the shopkeeper more carefully budgeted the chip amount).
When cooked, the Chipper, would pour the fried food on a single piece of white butcher’s paper and wrap the lot in a bundle of used newspaper. (The newspaper was used as an insulator to keep the meal hot until it was consumed). As soon as we got outside we would tear a hole in one end of the paper and pull the chips from the gaping hole and eat the meal using our fingers aa eating utensils. (When old enough to have money of my own I would sometimes sell a bundle of old newspapers to the shops for a few pennies).
It is surprising in 2020 to note how little we valued the riches of the sea years ago. For instance, as kids walking around the rocks of Lady Bay we had no appreciation the migrant families that picked wild mussels and oysters from the rocks later enjoyed a free gourmet meal. Worse, by the time we appreciated what they had feasted upon it was a banned activity. (Only once have I enjoyed the pleasure of harvesting wild oysters from the sea. This was at an Army Reserves camp in Tasmania around 1970).
In Victoria the Fisheries Department stocked local streams and lakes with trout. In season, and with some childhood luck, we ate Rainbow salmon trout sometimes and lots of wild eels. The eels were easily caught but most difficult to manage when landed. Their writhing slippery skin allowed for a dangerous moment or two before they were bagged. For the boy fisher, who tried to kill and extract the fish hook in the half light of dusk on the grassy edge of a local creek the battle was dangerous. The eel would wrap its body around an arm or leg, and with a hook protruding from its mouth it was also capable of a nasty bite. The fish caught this way was eaten as a trophy but otherwise unappreciated because each had unfamiliar bones that required caution when eating them.
Unusually at our Education Department run hostel, “Hawthorne”, at our final meal before graduation in 1961, we were served what the Army would call a Mess Formal Dinner. The meal started with soup, followed by a course of Crayfish (Australian Rock Lobster.) Our main dish was fillet steak. I have no recollection of what came next. The point is back in 1961 Crayfish was plentiful. It wasn’t cheap but it was plentiful and considered enough of a delicacy to form part of of our final college meal. (Within a few short years crayfish disappeared from Australian tables. The fishing fleets along the southern coast disappeared with them.) (To buy Australian Rock Lobster , in 2020, one competes with the rest of the world and pays what is asked)).
It was not until I became a regular Friday night diner at the Nicholson dinner table, did I regularly eat bony fish. Marie’s choice was Barracouta. This was served as fried steaks with mashed potatoes. The Barracouta (now renamed Australian Snoek) is a tasty fish. Unlike the delicate bones of trout the fish has darning needle thick long bones. Hundreds of them. (It too has almost disappeared from fish mongers. Either it was over fished, or with global warming has moved to colder climes).
All along the south western coast of Victoria it was possible to find a fleet of the wooden Couta boats. Many of these places had no natural harbour, or poor berthing places, (Lorne, Port Campbell, Peterborough, for protection the boats were hauled out of the water at shift’s end and rested high and dry on the pier.)
Over the years I have had my taste palette trained to enjoy the fruit of the sea. An example is octopus. As a school boy a text we read was A Pattern of Islands by A. Grimble. This book tells in great detail how the indigenous people of the Gilbert and Ellis Islands (Kiribati) caught and ate the fish. Grimble an Englishman was appalled how people could eat it. After a couple of trips to Greece I now ask how could they not?
Today many local people attempt to catch fish as their forefathers did and they fail. They fail to catch their local fish because they have been over fished, or the condition of the water has changed and the fish have moved away.
It is a curse of international fishing that schools have been over fished. (Sometime the fishing lines are hundreds of kilometres long. The goal of these fishers might be one variety, yet all varieties of fish are caught. The unwanted fish are released as by-catch corpses thus wasting every other species.)
The ecological problems are many. The oceans are full of indigestible plastics. Fish farms feed confined fish fish meal that requires antibiotics to kill harmful pathogens. Species have been lost and fish is considered the property of every body at the expense anyone living in water indigenous to them. My final word is if we are to continue to enjoy fish as a food we must only take what we can eat – today.