Easy and Elegant Life

The Search for Everyday Elegance and the Art of Living Well.

The Fish Course

©istockphoto/Paul Savin
©istockphoto/Paul Savin

The other night, Mrs. E. and I were privileged to have dinner with new friends. We chose a restaurant that was close to the theatre where they had played that night. I ordered a whole Branzino, or European Seabass. It quickly became evident to me that I had miles to go before I developed the skills necessary to deal elegantly with eating a whole fish at table. My father had them, and it is his facility with the cutlery that I seek to obtain.

So, for those of us who are willing to look dinner in the eye and do the dish justice, I present “The Easy and Elegant Life Guide to Filleting a Fish at Table.”

Using your knife and fork, remove the head and tail. I would hope that a plate has been provided to receive the discarded bits. If, as was the case that night, it has not and the dinner plate isn’t of sufficient size to accommodate the bones, it may be acceptable to use your bread plate. I hope so; that’s what I did, but I suspect that it is not acceptable at the best tables. So, best remove the head and tail to the side of your plate.

Next insert your knife next to the backbone run it along the backbone from the head end to the tail end. Lift off the fillet and remove the backbone to the scrap pile.

You may now eat the fillets.

If you find small bones in your mouth, push them to the front of your lips with your tongue and deposit them onto your fork to be placed with the other remains. I was considerably more crass than this, but will never be again.

If the fillets are flakey enough, you may wish to use only your fork to eat them. Hold it in your right hand, tines up or down as you are most comfortable. When using your knife and fork, fork in the left, tines down, knife in the right acting as the cutter and pusher.

My father used to use his fork and a spoon to fillet the fish (which invariably was served on a platter) and lift the fillets to his plate. This strikes me as infinitely more elegant. But it requires the server to stand there for a moment and so is unlikely to occur in today’s restaurants and certainly not at home, unless you are in sufficient funds to employ help.

Finally, a word about the much-maligned fish fork. The prejudice against them came about with the emergence of the middle classes in Britain. Long ago generations had not eaten à la Russe (in courses as we do now; Louis XIV established the practice) and had relied on a more basic combination of the knife, fork and spoon as the only utensils. (Spoons were associated with infancy and so were avoided unless absolutely necessary. There was the individual salt spoon, the demi-tasse and the serving spoon with the soup spoon making its appearance at table after WWII.) The fish fork, therefore, would not have been a part of the inherited cutlery and was associated with the new money of the middle classes. A large table fork would have been used as the fish fork.

Interestingly, at today’s table we have done away with much of the Victorians’ elaborate dining rituals and with them have gone the extended sets of flatware. We are back to setting the table with the basics, more or less, of the Great Houses in England.

5 thoughts on “The Fish Course

  1. I have tried, for most of my life, to avoid fish with excess bones. No matter how delicious the fish I cannot be bothered with the tongue-and-bone tango. It is difficult to execute with sufficient grace. I do however own a ravishingly pretty set of fish forks and knives, prized largely for the motifs.

  2. Like you I’ve never quite managed to filet my own fish at the table with the desired elegance. I’m fortunate in that my two favorite Greek restaurants in Atlanta do an excellent job fileting tableside. I’ve started studying them and find that they tend to use serving spoons to perform the operation, though each waiter has a slightly different style.

    Lamb mac and cheese tonight, thank you for the recipe.

  3. My husband worked his way through grad school as a waiter in a fancy restaurant or two in St. Louis and learned a number of tableside skills. And he’s a trout fisherman so I know he can fillet a fish. But I’m guessing even he would hesitate to order such a dish in a restaurant these days. I applaud you for your efforts.

    I have a Victorian dessert set that I love and use often: spoons, forks with 3 tines (two normal and one wide to use as a knife), a larger serving fork and spoon — all packed in a little satin lined box with velvet tabs to hold everything in place.

  4. Can NOT deal with any fish that I suspect may have remaining bones. Too many childhood traumas of fish with invisible bones. But I do have lovely French Ivory-handled fish knives and forks… much to the chagrin of House of Beauty & Culture!

  5. Wow. Too much work. Seems especially daunting with a couple of cocktails under one’s belt.

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