Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/The haddock and John Doree

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume X (1863-1864)
The haddock and John Doree
by Astley Henry Baldwin


In treating of these two interesting sea-fish, I have thought it desirable to speak of them conjointly, rather than devote to each a separate paper: firstly, because a short account of each is all that is required to interest the readers of this series of fish-papers; and secondly, because both the haddock and John Doree lay claim to the singular title of "St. Peter's fish." On the side of each of these fish, and close beneath the gills, there is a dark mark, very strongly resembling the impression of a man's finger and thumb; and from this fact a legend has arisen that either the haddock or John Doree must be the fish out of the mouth of which St. Peter took a piece of money, as related in the Bible.

Without discussing the pros and cons of the case, I own to thinking that there is a certain poetical beauty in this sort of legend, which, though often entirely opposed to facts, has yet a great fascination for the students of natural history. I will, however, at once pass on to the description of the two fish I have selected to speak of in the present paper, and will give the place of honour to the haddock.

Haddock are perhaps the most interesting of all the fish classed under the head of the Cod-tribe, and are always much sought after for the London market. The best haddock are those of the North Sea and of the Irish Channel, and those taken off the Shetland Isles; but those of the Irish Channel are so excellent, that the name of "a Dublin haddock" has passed into a proverb. Probably, when sent to table fresh, and when properly served up, there is no sea-fish that can excel it.

Haddock, of late years, have become very much scarcer than they were some twenty years ago, and this I attribute to the wholesale destruction of small fish. I have before remarked[1] that much injustice has been done to the "trawl-net" by the assertion of its opponents that it is destructive to the spawn of sea-fish. The "trawl" certainly does destroy spawn, but only in a very minor degree, as it cannot be used on the rocky spawning-beds.

It is astonishing that people do not see that the real reason for the scarcity of sea-fish is the want of protection for the brood-fish at spawning-time. I will not here repeat all that I said before on the subject, but I will say that as long as the salmon, trout, perch, and all fresh-water fish are protected by law at the spawning-time, it is extraordinary that our lawgivers cannot see the urgent necessity of protecting the cod, herring, haddock, and in fact all sea-fish, in like manner. Great Britain's wealth in sea-fisheries might be quadrupled by the very simple justice of allowing the fish to rest during the period when they are propagating their species.

Haddock are taken both in the trawl-net and with hooks, those taken in the latter way being far the best fish. Good fresh haddock are always in demand for the London market, and their price varies from eightpence to three shillings. The supply is rarely equal to the demand, for the fish appear to grow scarcer and scarcer, and consequently it is a rarity to obtain a fresh haddock in London at anything like a low price. The best way of dressing a haddock for the dinner-table is to take a fresh plump fish, of not less than three pounds' weight: then stuff with sweet herbs, as I have recommended for Jack: boil the fish carefully, so that it shall not break in the dressing, and serve it up garnished with slices of lemon and oyster or shrimp sauce, though some prefer fennel-sauce to either. Dried haddock are exceedingly fine for a breakfast relish, and a peat-smoked haddock from Ireland will bear away the palm from almost anything.

These haddock, cured as I have tasted them, have an exquisite flavour, very similar to that of a Westphalia ham. They are cheaper than the fresh fish, because, being cured on the spot where they are taken, no cost is incurred by the hurry of sending them off to London in time to be eaten whilst fresh—an expense which takes one-third off the profit of fish sent to Billingsgate. Small-sized codfish are very often cured and smoked, and passed off on unwary purchasers for "Dublin Bay haddock." But this fraud is easily detected by the practised connoisseur in fish; for the haddock has a dark-chocolate stripe extending the whole length of its body from the eye to the fork of the tail, whereas the cod has no such distinction. A great many haddock are taken off the Orkneys and Shetlands, on the long lines used for taking cod, tusk, ling, and other deep-sea fish; but the greater part of those supplied to London are net-fish, and consequently Londoners rarely get prime fresh haddock, however they may flatter themselves they do.

The weight of the haddock in general extends from one to seven pounds. I never saw a haddock taken with spawn in it; but from what I can gather I incline to believe that they spawn twice in the year, as does the herring—viz., in April or May, and again in September or October. If sprats be (as I believe they are) young herrings, this would fully account for the great difference of size we see in the sprats brought to market.

The haddock is in finest condition in the autumn months, and perhaps from October to Christmas may be reckoned its best season. I can remember, a dozen or fifteen years ago, that haddock were abundant on the South-eastern coast from Margate to Dover; and I have seen heavy takes of them brought into Ramsgate, Dover, Sandwich, Folkestone, and other Kentish ports. Now, however, a haddock caught by a Kentish trawling-boat is a veritable "rara avis;" and it is a fact that most of the haddocks eaten in the towns mentioned come through London from Plymouth, Torbay, and other Devonshire and Cornish fishing-places.

The scarcity of fish at those places where they were formerly so abundant (and which are their natural breeding-grounds) puts me in mind of a fact that occurred when our Queen visited the Emperor of the French a few years since. Although France is famous for its peaches, there were none good enough for Royalty, and the Emperor had actually to send to our Covent Garden for fruit to set before his august visitor at the Tuileries! Lest, however, I should trespass too much on the patience of my readers, I will pass on to the second branch of my subject—namely, the John Doree.

The John Dory (as it is popularly spelt) derives its name from the French words Jean Doré, which being interpreted means, literally, "Gilded John," that is, the sea-dandy: a term singularly inappropriate, since the John Doree is, without exception, the most hideous of sea-fish—or, at least, of sea-fish used for the table.

This fish is a kind of compromise between one of the haddock species and a flatfish—in appearance only, I mean, for it is not a hybrid but a distinct species. The John Doree has on his back a large fin, in shape resembling that of the river-perch, the curvature of which is so peculiar as to give the fish the appearance of being humpbacked. It is an exquisitely-flavoured fish, and hence its merit must not be judged of from its external credentials. There is a story that Quin, the actor, once went all the way to Plymouth to eat John Dorees in perfection. I, for my part, see nothing extraordinary in the story, since it is by no means uncommon now-a-days for epicures to travel all the way to the Highlands merely to eat black game and venison "comme il faut manger." Certainly there is this to be said for Quin's compliment to the John Doree—namely, that those days were not the days of railway-trains.

Seriously, however, it is true that the John Doree is a fish highly prized by the gourmand, and he is one of those very few fish admitted to first-rate dinner-tables. In this respect the John Doree must have the preference over the haddock; for, whereas the latter is very much under-estimated by many persons, the John Doree is greatly sought after, and is thought good enough for the table of Royalty itself. The Doree is not caught in any great quantities. For instance, a trawling-boat that has made a heavy catch of soles, plaice, haddock, whiting, &c., will have not more than two or three Dorees—perhaps only a single fish of the sort—in her nets during an entire night's fishing. For this reason the John Doree commands a good price. From half-a-crown to five shillings is not out of the way for a small fish, and I have known one to fetch a great deal more. Perhaps a fair average price is three shillings for a fish the size of a small plaice.

The best Dorees are those of the Southwestern coasts, and especially of Torbay. The Scottish Dorees are also famous; and, if I remember rightly, one of these fish is spoken of by Scott, in his "Antiquary," as forming the subject of a bargain by Miss Grizzel Oldbuck, that inimitably-drawn specimen of the bustling house-manager.

The John Doree is mostly taken in nets—indeed, I have not actually seen one taken with a hook; and if it be not so taken, that will debar it from its claim to the title of "St. Peter's fish." I have often heard the Irish call the haddock "St. Pather's fish," but never heard the term applied to the John Doree, who is principally so styled by the Cornish and Welshmen.

The flesh of the Doree is so good in itself that it requires but very few additions to improve it, and I will boldly recommend gastronomes to eat Dorees plainly boiled with shrimp-sauce and a little anchovy. Harvey sauce mixed with anchovy, is, perhaps, an improvement for most sea-fish, but not for the John Doree. Many persons, indeed, prefer the Doree without any sauce whatever, using merely a little clear melted butter.

The size of the John Doree varies usually from three-quarters of a pound to three pounds. I have seen them larger, but very seldom; and I imagine a pound and a-half to be a fair average estimate of the weight of this fish. We usually see but one or two specimens at a time on a fishmonger's stall, as they are comparatively so scarce that they are snapped up as soon as they come into the market.

Astley H. Baldwin.

  1. See vol. ix., p. 252.