Potted Char, Cumbria
Potted Char is a very occasional treat these days, partly because the fish has declined in numbers (though at least one trout farm in the same region is said to be experimenting with rearing the fish), and partly because it is not an easy fish to catch given that netting is banned and catching them on rod and line at the great depth they inhabit takes a lot of patience. Preparing and eating potted fish has rather gone out of fashion too, sadly.
The char, salvinus alpinus to give its scientific name, is a member of the same family as the salmon and the trout, and like its distant cousins shares the counter-Darwinian trait of being very tasty. Two theories are heard about why it is found in Windermere and Coniston , and in fact in a few other deep water lakes in Wales and Scotland (they need the water to stay below 20 centigrade to survive): the first and rather more believable one is that it is a remnant of the Ice Age, trapped when the waters subsided; the second is that the Romans introduced it, though logistics and the fact that excellent trout, pike and perch to name but three were found in the same waters, argue against that one.
Travellers in the Lake District including Defoe and even earlier Celia Fiennes remarked positively on potted char, often then served by inns at breakfast it seems. Today restaurants are the best bet for finding the dish, which is a simple but satisfying one: the flesh of filleted and skinned fish is cooked gently in butter, the juices poured off, and the fish broken into smaller pieces. A roughly equal quantity of butter, often flavoured with a touch of nutmeg and cayenne, is melted and the two put together in a small fairly shallow pot. When this has solidified it is sealed with clarified butter.
As with so many excellent dishes this has its roots in using up leftovers, and in preserving food – leftover char from grilling whole fish could be used, and the contents sealed in clarified butter will keep for quite a few days. Of course now we would tend to put the pot in the fridge to be doubly sure. Pots decorated with pictures of char, and used to pot the fish, have become something of a collector’s item; but then so has potted char itself.
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