Taste gone to waste

Peter Muirhead | VOLUME 25, ISSUE 4

Many Australians turn up their noses – and palates – at European carp. But with the introduced species now here to stay, we need to learn from other countries.

Here in Australia, we’ve had it pretty much our own way with the choice of salt and freshwater fish at our disposal. For those of us so inclined, we’ve been able to catch and eat our own and for the rest, who prefer to let others do the fishing, prices haven’t put the occasional fish meal completely out of reach – well not yet, anyway.

The interesting thing is that, despite all the gloomy warnings about over-fishing and feeding the burgeoning world population, a perfectly respectable fish available in huge numbers is being largely ignored here in Australia.

Now, the European carp has been called plenty of names – none of them especially flattering – but the dreaded ‘rabbit of the river’, as it’s sometimes more appropriately known, holds a surprise or two from a culinary viewpoint.

Call me what you like, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with carp on the dinner plate. And that’s not just my opinion, with carp now classed as the world’s most eaten fish. Carp is particularly popular on the dinner tables in Europe, Asia and the southern US, and is a prized angling fish in Russia and the UK.

In Europe – and many other places where this ‘river rabbit’ has spread and people have learned how to prepare it – it is highly rated. But each year in Australia, in observance of the rule that, as a declared noxious fish, carp must not be returned to the river alive, we simply discard them on the river bank to die, cursing their very existence.

Most say the European carp is just too full of bones to be of any use at the dinner table. But what isn’t generally known is that two large and bone-free slabs of flesh can be cut from behind the rib cage region, while two long and relatively thin ‘strip fillets’, also boneless, can be removed from high up along the back.

PASSING THE TASTE TEST

To this some might say, ‘Well so what; doesn’t carp leave a lot to be desired in the taste department?’

Here and now I’m happy to debunk that quite widely-held belief, because a carp caught in South Australia’s lower lakes and prepared for me tasted surprisingly good. It was one of many dozen netted that day – and every day for that matter – by sixth-generation professional fisherman, Henry Jones. For many years, Henry owned and operated the Yabby City restaurant at Clayton, near Hindmarsh Island on Lake Alexandrina. That’s before the disappearance of yabbies in the area due to low Murray River flows and rising salinity. Besides using carp in traditional fish dishes, he also serves it as fish patties, roll mops and smoked.

If subjected to a taste test, I venture to say that I would have had trouble differentiating between it – the carp cooked in a Kiev-style that day by Jones – and one of our native river species or even a respectable marine variety.

Jones has seen the price he receives for carp gradually increase to what it is currently – around $5 per kilo for whole fish – and he isn’t the only professional fisher adding value to the huge carp resource.

In Victoria, Henry’s experience and consumers’ gradual and hesitant move towards carp is echoed by another professional fisher, Keith Bell. For many years, Bell has been exporting increasing tonnages of carp ‘trunks’ – that’s top-and-tailed, gutted and scaled – to markets in Europe and Israel, principally for canning. There are also export markets for fillets and what’s known as roe and milt – the latter being the male carp gonad, which, according to Bell, Europeans can’t get enough of at Christmas time. Other markets value the pituitary gland and swim bladder, while leather-type products are increasingly being produced from the skin.

But here in Australia, Bell is the first to admit that the potential of this fish is pretty much lost on the older generation, something he puts down to irresponsible and misleading information.

“If it had been done differently, carp today could be commanding a much higher value because, technically, there’s nothing at all wrong with them,” he says.

For this reason, he’s been concentrating on promoting carp as a species of genuine value to the younger generation and involves himself in cooking demonstrations around Victoria. “Once the younger brigade cooks and tastes it, they can’t get enough of it,” he says.

So the next time you head upriver for a fish, take Henry’s filleting instructions with you and serve up a carp meal or two. You might just surprise your guests.

Carp is also ideal for smoking, roll mops or mincing for patties and is far too good a source of protein to throw away.

HOW TO FILLET CARP

1. Keep the fish in good condition and bleed soon after capture; cut off the head and remove the gut

2. Run a knife along the back bone as you would fillet any fish

3. Then remove the rib cage and skin the fillet

4. Run your fingers along the top of the fillet and you will feel a row of bones along the full length of the fillet in a straight line. With a sharp knife, cut out the row on both sides

5. Then use your fingers again to find another row of bones in a straight line halfway along the fillet in the tail

6. Cut this out and you have close to half of the fillet free of bones.

For a no-frills, tried and tested carp recipe, try this Henry Jones favourite: sprinkle fillets with salt and pepper and a pinch of garlic. Powder with flour. Place in a hot pan of olive oil with oregano. Cook for two minutes either side. Add a squeeze of lemon as you take the fish from the hotplate.


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