I took one look at this fish in the shop and was hooked. Most fish eaters will ultimately agree that the turbot is the king of fish: not even a Dover sole has quite the same richness of flavour, firmness of texture or sheer juiciness as a proper turbot: it is, of course, expensive and for that reason I do not buy it regularly. However, when I see good turbot I find it hard to resist.
Over 20 years ago I was offered some beautiful turbot. They were very small – probably of a size that would be considered questionable today. But these fish were perfect – which is to say of an unimpeachable freshness – and I decided to offer them as a generous portion for one.
As it happened Lucian Freud came to dine that night. He often came to the restaurant but usually in the middle of the afternoon or late at night, with his whippet perched in his lap, and sitting comfortably on a banquette at the back of the restaurant. Here he was, in one of the less attractive tables in the middle of the room, and in the middle of a busy Saturday night’s service.
I was relieved when the great man ordered the turbot. I sent it out simply but properly cooked and glowed with pride at the thought of how he was going to enjoy it. A minute later, the fish came back. Lucian said it was “off”. I was so dismayed that I sent the manager back with the fish to remonstrate gently with him and explain the impeccable credentials and sweetness of the fish. The response was brusque: “I’m not going to get in a shouting match with the man; please take it away.” It was a cowardly move on my part: I should have shut up or done my own dirty work. I was saddened and forced to the conclusion that great painters need not necessarily be great judges of fish.
It was another 10 years before Lucian returned and then usually just to have a coffee late at night at the bar before going back to paint. I never discovered how he came to be dining outside his usual habits or why he was in such a filthy temper that night, and although I met him a few times subsequently, I for one was never at ease. I have since had better luck with turbot.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Baked turbot with hollandaise
Cooking a whole turbot used to be considered problematic and a rhomboid-shaped fish kettle – a turbotière – was designed to cope with this alleged difficulty. I find baking them on an oven tray very satisfactory, just as long as they are cooked on the bone. I served it with purple sprouting broccoli which appears, strangely, to have come into season. Serves four to six.
1 turbot, weighing 1.5kg-2kg
Marjoram or thyme
125g unsalted butter
3 egg yolks
2 tbs white wine
● Preset the oven to 220C. Make sure that the gills and innards of the fish have been removed and rinse the fish in cold water. Season the cavity with sea salt. Pour a tablespoon of olive oil and add a sprinkling of sea salt on the bottom of an oven tray and lay the fish down on top. Sprinkle with more sea salt, a milling of pepper and another tablespoon of olive oil. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes. The fish should be very slightly undercooked and at the point when the fillets at the tail end just begin to separate. Cover with foil and keep in a low warming oven.
● Peel the pith from the lemon and cut into very thin strips. Drop these in a pan of hot water for a few seconds and then refresh in cold water. Pick a teaspoon of marjoram leaves but do not chop them.
● In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Keep warm. Separate three eggs and put the yolks in a small round bowl. Whisk the yolks with the white wine, the juice of the lemon, pepper and a pinch of salt. Place the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water and whisk over a low heat. It takes a while before the mixture, after first becoming foamy, thickens and turns into a “sabayon”, which leaves a trail behind itself. Still whisking, trickle in the butter, using the residue at the bottom if the sauce gets too thick. Once the butter is used, keep the sauce in a bowl in a warm (not hot) place.
● Just before dishing up, sprinkle the fish with the zest and marjoram and baste with the tray juices. Serve with a green vegetable and new potatoes.