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What fish is this?

January 15, 2002

I went to my usual fishmongers during the week to collect something for dinner and came across a species that was new to me. They had it labelled "Port beagle loins." At $NZ5.95 a kilo, it seemed like a bargain so I bought enough for the family and a bit extra for the cat.

Whenever I appear in the kitchen with a parcel of fish, the cat is never far behind. He swishes round my legs, then hovers behind me putting his whole body at risk from a backwards step.

Anyway I took my catch home and inspected it a little more closely. It had a nice sweet fresh fish smell. The portions were about the size and shape of porterhouse steaks and the fish was very firm and it had a fibred rather than flaked appearance - something like tuna. In fact I thought it might have been a species of tuna.

The man at the fish shop said it was a good baking fish. However, I cooked it quite simply, sprinkling it with seasoned flour then shallow frying it in a little light oil.

It was firm, rather like chicken or light veal and had a pleasant delicate flavour.

Next day I thought I had better find out a bit more about my fish. One of my colleagues suggested the name was more likely to be "porbeagle" and that turned out to be the case.

The fishmonger said they didn't get supplies very frequently but when they did, those in the know would quickly snap up the fish.

Porbeagle, it turns out, is a species of shark. The lot that we ate was fished off the coast of Kaikoura, an hour or two by car from where I live. The sea round those parts is also famed for its crayfish. In fact Kai is the Maori name for food and koura the name for crayfish (like lobster but with much smaller front pincers). Roadside stalls there sell freshly cooked crays. Kaikoura is also a favourite place to go on whale-watching expeditions. And one of my sons went swimming with the dolphins there during a school biology trip to the area. But I digress... (For more about Kaikoura visit www.kaikoura.co.nz).

The great cookery writer Jane Grigson, in her informative book Fish Cookery (Penguin, ISBN 0-14-046216-3), mentions buying porbeagle in France, where it is called taupe. There the fishmonger's wife said it was just like veal and said they sometimes called it veau de mer. "Treat it like veal," she told Grigson.

I would think porbeagle would make an excellent fish for the barbecue. It will hold its shape during cooking and the fast heat of the barbecue means the fish will cook quickly and not dry out. Its firmness would also make it admirably suited to cutting into cubes for fish kebabs.

Grigson suggests turning it in flour (as I did) or in egg and breadcrumbs and frying it gently in clarified butter and maybe serving it on a puree of sorrel softened with cream. I can imagine the acidity of the sorrel enhancing the flavour of the fish.

She also says it can be poached in a court-bouillon and eaten cold with mayonnaise. Mmmm!

We certainly enjoyed our introduction to porbeagle and I bought another supply for the freezer so I can try it on the barbecaue if our present run of unseasonal rain ever stops.

(Photo from the Canadian Shark Research Laboratory web site: www.mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/science/shark/english/index.htm).


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