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The pike: “Too good for any but anglers or very honest men”, according to Izaak Walton (photo: AMB)

“What are you making?” said my sister, peering over my shoulder into the saucepan. “Mmm, disgusting sauce! My favourite.” It is true that the sauce at that point did not look appetising: under the fluorescent kitchen light it was somehow both beige and almost pinkish. My uncle and I were making quenelles de brochet — pike dumplings in a rich sauce, a traditional dish of Lyon — “an aristocratic dumpling . . . a light and delicate confection”, says Jane Grigson, in her Fish Book (Penguin, £16.99). (The word quenelle is cognate with the Yiddish kneidel.) My aunt and uncle happened to have a pike and suggested making the quenelles for a family gathering at my grandparents’ house — a mere 17 of us.

This is an almost forgotten dish: Anthony Bourdain, in his essay “The Old Good Stuff” (reprinted in The Nasty Bits, Bloomsbury, £9.99), describes it as something “maybe one chef among thousands remembers, much less knows how to prepare”, grouping it with blanquette de veau: unironic, beige-on-beige dishes from another time. In a 1973 issue of New York magazine, the publisher Alfred Knopf, one of “Fifteen Well-Known Epicures”, chooses it as his favourite dish, but it was old-fashioned even then. (Meanwhile, Gael Greene’s “Greatest Dishes in Town” in the same issue includes morels stuffed with pike mousse, and brioche de brochet — pike in pastry, with watercress sauce. Pike was clearly having a moment.)

In my family we have a very specific term for a semi-pointless personal project: we call it a “shrinkle”. Shrinkles™ (the main US brand is Shrinky Dinks) are sheets of plastic (sometimes printed with a design); a child draws or colours it in, cuts out a shape, and bakes it in the oven. The plastic (a kind of polystyrene) shrinks into a small hard plate. You then turn your ornament into a badge or a keyring or any other number of unnecessary items. Anything can be termed a shrinkle if it is a) time-consuming, b) not, to an outsider, worth the time put into it, c) demonstrating a vortex-like tendency by sucking other people in. It is difficult to maintain a sensible perspective on a shrinkle and adulthood only worsens this tendency. My uncle’s plan to make quenelles de brochet was a shrinkle of the highest order. Real quenelles involve an awful lot of pounding and sieving and moulding and poaching to achieve something of no particular colour or texture — described by my uncle as having “a faint hint of fish”.

The first difficulty is acquiring a pike: this one was caught in the river Severn, in fact “caught very easily: casting with a spinner, no bait”, said my uncle. If you catch a pike you may legally keep him only if he is less than 65 cm long: large, old pike regulate the waters by eating small, diseased and dying fish, or other pike. Fortunately, Izaak Walton informs us that the smaller pike are better eating: “The old or very great Pikes have in them more of state than goodness.” (You can buy pike fillets online at, or substitute another white fish. Or make something else entirely.) Traditional recipes have you make a panade — the first step of choux dough which is a sort of roux, a cooked mixture of flour, butter and milk, which you then mix with the raw puréed fish, and force through a sieve.
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