17th Century Salmon


A rude awakening for me this week. Auguste Escoffier brought it to my attention that for many years now I have been totally failing in my patriotic duty. I was flicking through his early 1900s Le Guide Culinaire and according to Escoffier, “In England salmon is always served accompanied with plain or salted cucumber”. But I don’t always do that. Not always. Not even mostly. Do you? I’ve obviously been letting the salmon side (get it?) down. Well, no more. My salmon shall henceforth always come with cucumber – starting with this recipe for tasty and meaty poached whole salmon.

Bears and salmon

I tend to think fish benefits from as little mucking around with as possible. Buy the best you can get hold of, cook it simply, and you will seldom go wrong. Poaching follows that philosophy but manages to delicately wheedle in a few extra flavours to give the fish just that little bit of added oomph. When the fish in question is a whole salmon there is a very practical problem to be tackled first, though: just what to poach the bugger in. I know a fish kettle sounds like the obvious answer but it’s not a piece of kit that most of us have lying around. Many fishmongers (and some supermarkets) will happily loan you one. Otherwise you could use a large roasting tin that can take the heat of a stove and substitute tin foil for a lid.

The recipe that follows is for serving poached salmon cold. I fancy it for a late and lazy summertime Sunday lunch when you’re not too sure what time everyone will feel like eating. If you want to have it hot, forget the bit about taking it off the heat when it starts to boil. Instead once it boils lower the heat to bring it back to a simmer and poach the salmon on that slowly bubbling level of heat for 20 minutes. (The fish is cooked when the flesh comes away from the bone easily.) Then lift the salmon out, let it cool for a few minutes and carry on.

This recipe is a bit of an antique. It’s based on one from Robert May, cook to the English aristocracy in the mid 1600s.


Poached whole salmon – serves 8

  • 1 whole salmon, approx 2.5kg
  • 1 bottle white wine
  • 2 tbsps white wine vinegar
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1 piece of blade mace
  • half teaspoon whole peppercorns
  • an inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and flattened with the back of a spoon
  • 3 sprigs each of rosemary, thyme, marjoram, 3 bay leaves and a few stems of flat leaf parsley
  • 50g butter

1. Lay the salmon on its rack into the fish kettle. Pour over the bottle of the wine and then enough water to make sure the fish is covered.

salmon kettle

2. Add into the liquid the vinegar, cloves, mace, peppercorns, ginger, garlic and some salt. Bundle together all the herbs and add those too.

3. Now set the kettle over two rings on the stove and start to heat it up. As it gets warm add the butter. Bring it to the boil, let it boil for about 30 seconds and then put the lid on. Turn the heat off straight away. Leave the salmon to finish cooking in the residual heat of the kettle. Resist the urge to lift the lid to have a peak – you really must leave it until it is cold.

4. Then lift the salmon out of the kettle on its rack. Gently turn it out. Scrape away the skin to reveal your beautifully poached salmon which is now ready to be arranged on a serving platter. Whether you leave the head and tail on is entirely up to you. I would.

Poached Salmon

Do not, whatever you do, forget about the cucumbers.

A dill and cucumber salad works nicely but I am going to go for the salted cucumbers that old Auguste mentions. Partly because I’m now a little afraid of letting him down but mainly because they are absolutely delicious. The salting process removes the cucumber’s natural wateriness and intensifies its flavours.

Peel and thinly slice a whole cucumber. Put the slices into a colander and scatter over lots of salt. Really make sure that all the cucumber slices get some. Sit the colander in the sink for about half an hour and then rinse the cucumber in cold water. Let them drain before gently squeezing any excess moisture out. Now chill the cucumber until ready to serve.

There used to be a fashion for decorating a side of salmon with cucumber slices arranged so as to replicate scales. I don’t go in for that in the same way that I’ve never really seen the appeal of chocolates shaped as shellfish. My chilled and salted cucumber will be served in a bowl alongside. With some herby new potatoes, too.

Cucumber Salad cut


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