It has taken about an hour to chug out into the middle of Prince William Sound. We have been entertained by frolicking porpoises zigzagging in front of the boat, bald eagles perched on rocks and otters lying on their backs as they enjoy a light lunch. Although this is June, the mountains that surround this expanse of water are still capped with snow and, happily, the sea is a flat calm. It is hard to believe that this majestic spot was the scene of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez. It has had its share of catastrophe, even without me being given a temporary fishing licence.
I have solemnly filled in the forms and am now a number in the Alaskan fishing records. Our catch is duly recorded with details of who caught what and the length of each fish, perhaps to deter the traditional hyperbole. Everybody seems to adhere to the bureaucracy as much as the sustainability programme. Transgressors have their licences revoked and are socially ostracised.
We start by catching a rockfish, a garish-looking thing with protuberant eyes. At first I assume this is about par for my fishing career until I am told they make excellent eating. We start to catch quite a few fish – demonstrating little skill apart from the ability to bounce a weight along the ocean floor some 150ft down and then reel in like billy-o when you think something has been tempted by the frozen sardine wrapped around the hidden hook. Somebody catches a fine-looking halibut. Next a magnificent skate is landed, inspected, admired and then chucked back, to my great chagrin.
By now, however, we are filling the boat. I alone, as cack-handed an angler as ever held a rod, have landed three magnificent Pacific cod. Fortunately we are allowed to keep these along with assorted rockfish and halibut. It is our job to cook these specimens that evening for a genial assembly of the local fishing community. Sadly, despite its abundance, cod is of little interest out here, most of it being salted or exported to what is charmingly described as “the lower 48”. They eat halibut, salmon, black cod (not a cod at all, and magnificent) and king crab. I set about trying to change their minds.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
These may be simple, clear flavours but the silky sauce gives the dish a sophisticated edge. Serves six.
750g large and long potatoes
3 cloves garlic
8 anchovy fillets
1 cod head or similar quantity white fish bones
150ml dry white wine
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
200ml double cream
1kg cod fillet
1 tbs chopped chives
● Wash the potatoes very well. Lay them in the top section of a steamer full of salted water and steam, taking them off when they are still undercooked. Leave them to cool down.
● Peel and slice the onions and garlic. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Stew them gently for three or four minutes before adding the anchovies and the cod head or fish bones. Very gently stew these ingredients until they break down before adding the wine and herbs. Bring to a boil and reduce by half before adding the cream. Stew these very gently for 15 minutes. Remove the fish bones and herbs and then liquidise the sauce in a blender before passing through a fine sieve. Put the sauce in a small saucepan and check the seasoning.
● Peel the cooled potatoes and cut them into 18 slices about one centimetre thick. Lay them on a sheet of greaseproof paper on a tray and sprinkle with sea salt. Cut the cod into 18 equal-sized pieces, placing them on the potatoes. Sprinkle a little water on the tray and cover with foil. Bake in a medium-hot oven (180C) for 10 minutes. Check the fish is cooked with a skewer. Transfer the pieces to a serving dish and coat with the anchovy sauce. Sprinkle with chives and serve.
Rowley’s drinking choice
High acidity is required to cut the richness of the sauce, coupled with sufficient body to complement the strong flavours. A white Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon blanc and Semillon would be ideal.