06 July 2011

How to Cook Roaches, Compliments of Thomas Percy

The Reed Autograph Letters and Manuscripts Collection holds thousands of original documents from the sixteenth to twentieth century. Its strength lies in the nineteenth century, but the eighteenth century is also well represented. This recipe for poached roaches (not the insect but the freshwater fish!) was found among a sheaf of letters and other papers belonging to Thomas Percy (1729-1811), Bishop of Dromore. Percy is perhaps best known today for his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and close friendship with Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Not suspected was a culinary bent.

The fish of choice, the roach, is mentioned in a number of eighteenth-century sources. A simple recipe for stewing roach is found in The London and Country Cook: or, Accomplished Housewife (third ed., 1749), and The Lady's Assistant for Regulating and Supplying the Table (sixth ed., 1787) informed its readers on how to select, boil and fry the fish. The Sportsman Dictionary (third ed., 1785) did not seem to think much of it, opening its entry on the roach by stating that it was 'not accounted a delicate fish'. Jim Chevalier, whom I thank for the aforementioned resources, informed me that French sources say to cook roach like carp, but 'don't seem very enthusiastic about it'.

The nineteenth-century naturalist and angler, John Greville Fennell, however, thought highly of the common roach and published a complete work on catching the fish, which he straightforwardly (if unimaginatively) called The Book of the Roach (1870). R A Gatty, writing in The Gentleman's Magazine (1907) lamented society's lost taste for such 'coarse fish':

'In the days of our forefathers what we call coarse fish were held in far higher esteem than they are now, and every country house had its stew-ponds where fish were carefully reared and preserved .... But the art of cooking coarse fish has ... disappeared, and nobody nowadays will thank you for a dish of dace, or roach, or chub; yet there was a time when these formed part of the regular food of the people'.

Readers who wish to don their kitchen aprons, sharpen their knives, and have a go at reinventing Percy's take on poached roach will find the recipe transcribed and interpreted below (thanks to my predecessor, Ian Stewart). I have not yet attempted to replicate the dish myself and would be delighted to hear from any readers who try it out.

Take ye Roaches scale open & wash ym very cleane; yn dry ym with a lining cloth yn take a smale very sharpe knife & scot[c]h [i.e. to cut with superficial incisions] ym to ye very back bone on one side from ye head to ye tale ; & one ye other side from ye tale to ye head ; you must take care yt ye scotches be as neare ye one to ye other as tis possible without cuting one part out : wn thus prepared Lay ym by in a cleane dish ; yn take the Liquor you designe to boyle to boyle [sic] ym in ; which must be 3 parts watter & one part French if you cane gett white wine vineger : to which you must add a large Fagott the 6 sweet hearbes ; sweet marjerinne winter savoury thyme speare mint penyroyall & a littell Fenell well chosen & pickt ye pell of a lemon  ye peele of an oring Sauge mace a few cloves a smale quantity of hole pepper a root of sound genger sliced ; & 8 or 10 sound well peeled onions cut ye crose way only together ; with 1, 2 or 3 according to ye proportions of yr Liquor ; handfuls of salt & take notice yt you can hardly over salt fresh fish ; wn you have put all these ingredients into ye vesell you intend to boyle yr fish in ; Lett it one a stronge good fire ; & thare lett it boyle for about halfe an houre untill ye strength of ye seasoning be out in ye Liquor : After this yr liquor boyleing very Fircely : put in yr fish one by one so as ye coldness of ye fish may very littell abate ye boyleing of ye liquor & you must not Faile to have in reddyness Spare wood or other convenient Fewell to keep the liquor constantly boyling : For if at any time it doe stint boyling while ye fish is in it it will make it soft which is not commendable whilst ye fish is boyling you must you must [sic] desolve into a smale portion of ye liquor 3 4 or 5 of good sound Anchovyes, as soone as yr fish is boyled enough you must immediatly (which is easily done by a false bottom [)] snatch it out of ye liquor ; & haveing a dish prepared by covering ye bottom with sliced manchit [i.e. manchet, a very fine small bread] lay ye fish upon it ; the sauce is good sweet butter drawn up very thick with ye liquor into which ye Anchovys ware desolved & to both ym add a lemon squesid ye dish if liked ought & may be rubed with garlike.


Roaches or some other fresh-water fish
Liquor comprising 3 parts water and 1 part French white wine vinegar
Large bunch of sweet marjoram, winter savoury, thyme, spearmint, pennyroyal, and fennel
Peel of 1 lemon
Peel of 1 orange
Small quantity of Peppercorns
1 root ginger, peeled and sliced
8-10 onions, sliced
1-3 handfuls Salt
Manchet, sliced
3-5 Anchovies
Melted butter
Juice of lemon

1. Scale and gut the Roaches, then wash and dry them thoroughly. Take a small, very sharp knife and score them to the depth of the backbone on one side from the head to the tail, and on the other side from the tail to the head – taking care that the scores be as near one to the other as it is possible without cutting one part out. Lay the Roaches to one side in a clean dish.

2. To a large pot add the liquor, the bunch of sweet herbs, the orange and lemon peel, sage, mace, peppercorns, ginger, onions, and handfuls of salt according to the amount of liquor used (it is very difficult to over salt fresh water fish.)

3. Bring to the boil and continue boiling for about half an hour so that the seasonings flavour the liquor.

4. While the liquor is boiling prepare the serving dish by rubbing with garlic (if desired) and cover the bottom of the dish with sliced manchet.

4. Add the Roaches to the boiling liquor one by one, taking care the liquor remains on the boil or else the fish will go soft.

5. While the Roaches are boiling prepare the sauce by dissolving the anchovies into a small portion of the liquor. Add melted butter to the anchovy mixture and reduce liquid until very thick. Add some squeezed lemon juice.

6. Transfer the Roaches to the serving dish and drizzle over them the sauce. Serve immediately. 

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