Friday 29 January 2016


Floundering over plaice names in Spain? 

Do you know your left from your right?

There is a wide variety of flatfish in Spain, many of which are not available in the UK and, to add to any confusion, they have different names in the various regions. Often the Spanish (Castellon) name will not be used and they will have different names in the Basque, Gallician, Catalan and Valencian languages as well as regional names for example in Andalusia or the Balearics.

So here I was in a flounder over plaice names, in a state of confusion, not knowing witch fish I was looking at.  I consulted some Spanish cookery books – and in reading one got a whiff that something was amiss. It was rather sinister and not quite right – or rather the reverse!  There was something wrong with this picture of a turbot which appears to be a mirror image – as it is facing the wrong way!

Turbot - mirror image

It could have been a fluke and this was a rare abnormality but I suspect it was the result of artistic licence or editorial freedom in order to portray all the fish on the page facing the same way:

The thing about flatfish is that, although they start out in life like most other fish, with a rounded body and one eye on each side of the head, at some stage, for some reason, they turn on to one side and spend the rest of their lives in this position. Some species turn on to their right side and others to their left.

Having done so, they swim along the bottom of the sea on their side and the downside skin becomes paler and paler and the uppermost side changes colour and darkens, often to mimic the surrounding seabed, providing camouflage.  At the same time the eye and the nostril on the underside gradually move and migrate to the uppermost side.

Species which turn on to their right hand side and have their eyes and nostrils on the left are called Sinistral and if drawn or photographed with the mouth up the right way would be pictured with their head on the left and tail on the right.  Those with their eyes and nostrils on the right are called Dextral and should be pictured with their head on the right and tail on the left.

This is how the turbot above should look.

Turbot - the right way round

Sinistral  flatfish which are common in the UK include turbot,
brill, and megrim sole (aka whiff  or sail-fluke).
Brill - Hove, Sussex June 2015

Dextral  flatfish common in the UK include (European) flounder*, Dover sole, Lemon sole, Torbay sole, plaice and dabs.
Lemon sole - Hove, Sussex October 2015

Plaice, trimmed and ready for the pan - Hove, Sussex May 2015

I have seen some references to John Dory and skate as flatfish.  They are not.  The John Dory has a flattened symmetrical body, with one eye on each side of the head and swims upright.  It is often included with true flatfish in cookery books as it can be treated in a similar way.  Skate is a member of the ray grouping, which have broad, flat, symmetrical bodies with large “wings”.  They live on the seabed and are cartilaginous (ie they have no bones but a skeleton made of cartilage). They are related to the sharks and dogfish. Normally only the wings are eaten.

Whatever the name, if they are on sale in Spain, whether at the fishmonger’s or in the supermarket, they will be good to eat and can mostly be treated the same way.  Price is usually a good indicator of their popularity (although also of scarcity). Fish which  are regarded as the best tasting are usually more expensive -  but taste is a matter of taste!  Turbot and Dover sole are regarded as top of the range and the most expensive, but I prefer brill to turbot and in Spain there are many varieties of true sole which I find just as good as those which we call Dover sole (lenguado)

In Spain I have also encountered lenguadina but have been unable to determine what it is (the name appears to be used quite widely to refer to different species). Dictionaries suggest that it is dab but I bought some which resembled megrim sole.  Dabs and lemon sole, however, are not  found in the Mediterranean and plaice are rare, but may be available in other parts of Spain.  I have not encountered witch in Spain - sometimes referred to as Torbay sole in the UK - also known as grey sole (plié grisé in France). The Spanish name appears to be mendo but as I have not seen it in Spain, nor found any reference to it in any books on Spanish or Mediterranean fish, I have not included it, or dabs, in the table below.

Halibut are also not found in the Mediterranean. They may venture as far south as the Bay of Biscay but are mostly caught from the south of Ireland northwards but are fairly expensive and not common in Spain.

Generally speaking the better quality fish can be pan fried, grilled, roasted or cooked  a la plancha (on a griddle) and inferior varieties are better baked with herbs/seasoning, or poached in a court-bouillon.

Rather than complicating my directory of fish names further, I have made a separate table for the flatfish and would welcome comments amendments and additions.

*The European flounder (Platichthys flesus) is usually dextral but it does occur from time to time in sinistral version.  In Spanish waters, however, there are other varieties of sinistral  fish called flounder in English, such as spotted flounderand the wide-eyed flounder.

Sinistral varieties
English (French)
(Fr Flétan)
(Fr Turbot)
Rémol de petxines
Erreboilo arrunt
Brill (Fr Barbue)
Erreboilo ezkatadun

(Fr Cardine)

Pelaia bruixa; Capellá
Spotted flounder
(Fr feuille)
Pelaia rosa;

Rombo de Arena
Wide-eyed flounder
(Fr Rombou podas)

(Fr Fausse limande)
Pelaia (rosa)
Oilar eskuin

Dextral varieties
Plaice (Fr Plie)

European flounder
(Fr Flet)
Rémol de riu

Platuxa latz
Solenette (Fr Petite sole jaune)
Wedge sole
(Fr Céteau)


Dover sole
(Fr Sole)
Falsa limanda
Lemon sole
(Fr Limande)
Limoi mihi

Lenguado Senegalés
Senegale sole

Lenguado de arena
Sand sole
(Fr Sole pole)
Hare lengoradu
Lenguado bravo
Thickback sole (Fr Sole perdrix
Lengoradu pintu
Lirpia raiada
Tambor real
Four-eyed sole (Fr Sole ocellée)

Whiskered sole
(Fr Sole velue)
Lenguado de fonera;
Peluda d’alga

Confused?  Try visiting the USA where they call a Sole a Flounder and a Flounder a sole! But that's a wholly different kettle of fish.

John Austin
Hove & Santa Pola, January 2016

Tuesday 26 January 2016


Artichokes and fartichokes

Will the real artichoke stand up please?  Thistle or sunflower?

There are two completely different, and only very distantly related, plants which are called artichoke but both are delicious and both grow on my allotment.

Globe artichoke

The true artichoke, often referred to as globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus or cardunculus) is a kind of thistle and the head or flower is the edible part, eaten before the flower has matured or opened.

Here are pictures of some grown on my allotment in Sussex.

Artichokes at Mile Oak allotment. Hove

We usually boil the unopened flower bud (seen above) and then pull off the leaves (or bracts) and suck the juicy, fleshy base dipped in butter or olive oil and balsamic vinegar or they can be served with a Hollandaise sauce.  When all the bracts have been removed you come to an inedible, hairy choke.  If this is cut off carefully with a very sharp knife at the base of the hairy bit, the edible fond is revealed and this is the most delicious part, which I prefer served with butter and black pepper or a vinaigrette dressing.

Jerusalem artichokes

These are neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem.  They are a variety of sunflower (Helianthus tuberosus)

Flowers from the Jerusalem artichokes on my allotment

The edible part is the underground tuber, which is hard and knobbly, rather similar in appearance to ginger root.

They have probably acquired the name artichoke as their taste can resemble that of the globe artichoke and the name Jerusalem is an English corruption of the Italian name for sunflower, girasole (although the Italian name for Jerusalem artichoke is topinambur which is also its name in Spanish - topinambour in French.  In some parts of Spain they may use the Catalan name, however, which is carxofa de Jerusalem.

The tubers can be sandy, brown or purplish in colour and some varieties are more knobbly than others - and a pain to peel.  To cook, they can be treated like potatoes.  Roasted in their skins they are an excellent accompaniment to lamb. They make an great starter, peeled, steamed and served with lemon juice, butter and black pepper and are superb in soups.  Unlike potatoes they can be eaten raw. They have a crisp texture, rather like water chestnuts and can be added to salads, sliced or in julienne strips.  If being served raw, or peeled to be boiled/steamed, it is wise to put them in water with a little lemon juice or cider vinegar before cooking to prevent them discolouring.

Do they have any drawbacks?  Yes they do! Firstly, they are a pain to peel and, secondly, they have an unfortunate property which has led to their nick-name, fartichokes.

The peeling problem can be overcome - don't peel them. If they are well washed, the skins are edible and if you are roasting them or making soup and puréeing/liquidising them you might just as well leave skins on.  If you are just boiling or steaming them you can cook them in their skins and either eat them with the skins on or eat the creamy inside and leave the skin.  Some would suggest parboiling then peeling but I think that is more trouble than it's worth.  If you peel them raw you might waste quite a bit, but they are so prolific on my allotment this doesn't bother me and the peelings just go back into the compost.

The second problem is not so easy. Jerusalem artichokes are very nutritious, 10% protein, no fat, rich in fibre, iron and potassium and low in starch.  They do contain a great deal of carbohydrate though (75%), in the form of inulin (not to be confused with insulin)  Tubers stored for a long time will convert the inulin to fructose (which gives the vegetable its sweet taste). The problem is that the human metabolic system doesn't naturally digest the inulin as it does with starch and relies on the bacteria in the gut to do this. Although this is a perfectly natural and healthy process it does lead to flatulence - which is more marked in some people than others - and can cause tummy-rumbling and for some abdominal discomfort. And the gas has to come out in the end!  But they are too good to be missed for this reason, although I wouldn't recommend eating them too often, and you might like to consider the company you are dining with, or meeting later, before putting them on the menu.

Here are some of the tubers being lifted from my allotment in November

Once you have them in your garden or vegetable patch you will always have them!

I will get round to some gardening tips and recipes for both globe artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes when I find the time but I must get back to my leek and (Jerusalem) artichoke soup, so in the meantime there are many great ideas for recipes you can look up on the internet.

John Austin
Hove January 2016

Friday 8 January 2016



For this recipe, I used Japanese quinces - not the true quince, from local bushes of Chaenomeles, which grow in gardens throughout the UK

1 kg Quinces (Japonica fruit) or as many as you have. 
1 large lemon
Sugar (450g/1lb to every 600mls/1pint liquid)

Wash the quince fruit, chop roughly, place in pan including core and pips (preferably not an aluminium pan), just cover with water; add the juice of 1 large lemon, bring to the boil and simmer  for 1 hour or until the fruit is soft. 

If you don’t have enough quinces, use what you have and you can add chopped apples (do not remove peel) and this will still provide a quince perfumed jelly.

When the fruit is soft, mash against sides of pan with a wooden spoon or mash with a potato masher to get a thick pulp. Allow to cool slightly.

Put pulp in jelly bag and leave to strain for at least 12 hours.  Resist the temptation to squeeze the bag unless you want a cloudy jelly. After straining, the contents of the bowl will appear cloudy but this will miraculously clear when you boil with sugar.

After straining, measure the quantity of juice and pour into pan. Add sugar (450g/1lb to every 600mls/1pint liquid), heat gently, stirring slowly until all the sugar has dissolved.  Bring to a rapid boil and boil for about 10 minutes or until setting point has been reached.

Test for setting by placing a teaspoon of the liquid on a very cold dry saucer and allow to cool, if a skin forms and it wrinkles when you draw your finger across, it has reached setting point.  If it does not, boil for a few minutes and test again.

When setting point is reached, skim off any foam which has formed on top of the boiling liquid. Have ready some screw top jars which have been sterilised, pour in the hot jelly and screw on lids whilst still hot.

If you didn’t squeeze the jelly bag you will have a beautiful, clear jelly – if you did squeeze, your jelly will be opaque (but taste just as good).  The jelly is excellent on toast for breakfast or tea or served with roast meats or strong hard cheese.

John Austin

October 2015, Hove



I make my quince jelly with the fruits from the garden shrub, Chaenomeles (commonly known as Japanese quince). My elder son is a bit sniffy about these things and tells me they're not real quinces but I don't care because the taste is just as good.

The true quince, Cydonia, is a small deciduous tree in the Rosaceae family (which includes apples and pears) and is a native of Asia. Although it does grow in the northern hemisphere and survives as far north as Scotland, it s not widely cultivated and its fruits are not readily available. There is another similar variety, Pseudocydonia or Chinese quince, also a native of Asia and which does survive in Southern Europe but the fruits are not readily available in the UK.
Fortunately the related plant, Chaenomeles or Japanese quince, which has edible quince like fruits is common in gardens throughout England.  It is a shrub with sharp thorns and attractive flowers, usually bright orange red, but the flowers  can be red, pink or white.  The bush flowers in early spring or sometimes late winter.  It is grown mainly as a decorative garden shrub, often as a flowering hedge but the fruits can be harvested from October.

Regrettably I don't have a Japanese quince bush in my garden but there is often food for free from neighbours. This year I found a supply on Streetlife. I was too late for David's, but he has put me on his list for next year, and I did get a reasonable picking from Jane's hedge a few blocks away.

To make quince jelly you use the whole fruit, pips and all, which are rich in pectin so you should always get a firm set.  If you don't want to make jelly, or if you have a few to spare, try a few added to stewed apple or an apple pie or crumble - just peel them, remove the seeds and core and chop and add them to the apples. They add a wonderful perfume and a tart taste.

 I have posted my recipe for Quince Jelly on my blog.

John Austin
November 2015, Hove