Week 5 - Nombles of Porpas
The Newfoundland food fishery is in full swing, which means it’s time for everyone’s favourite Colonial Cook Off tradition …. the fish dish.
We’re reaching waaaay back in time for this week’s recipe, all the way to the end of the 15th century. Our reference is an 1882 reprint of a 1498 text titled A noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssolde: reprinted verbatim from a rare ms. in the Holkham collection. The recipe goes like this:
If you read that and thought “WTF?!!!!”, the following might help. To start, let’s clarify exactly what this recipe makes. “Nombles” (sometimes spelled numbles) was used to describe two very different things: EITHER the inward parts of an animal - heart, lungs, liver, etc. - cooked for food (a.k.a. offal) OR the hind quarter of an animal, for example a loin of veal or a haunch of venison. Don’t worry, this week’s recipe uses the second definition. Obviously, fish don’t have hind quarters, or quarters of any kind really. Regardless, the term “cod loin” is used to describe the fattest part of the fish which produces the thickest fillets.
“Porpas” is an earlier spelling of porpoise and, in the context of this recipe, refers to a harbour porpoise. Porpas were often eaten in the Middle Ages, along with whale and seal. Thankfully, the final line in the original recipe states “ye may mak nombles of congure codlinge or other good fisshe in the same manner”. We’ll be using cod for our dish, but haddock, pollock, talapia, or any firm white fish will do.
One final note before we get started. The original recipe calls for the addition of porpoise blood. For obvious reasons, we won’t be adding that ingredient to our dish. I have no doubt that its omission will impact the final taste of our dish, but sometimes, authenticity is overrated!
Here’s our best guess at a modern version:
450 grams (1 lb) cod or any firm, white fish (skin on if possible)
500 ml (2 cups) of court-bouillon (see recipe below)
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
Pinch of cloves
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Panada (see recipe below)
1 slice of hot, buttered toast per person
Step 1: Make the Court Bouillon
Don’t let the fancy name freak you out. Court Bouillon (pronounced "coor boo-YONE") is a quick and simple broth traditionally used in French cuisine for poaching fish and shellfish. You’ll need:
1 small onion
1 or 2 sticks celery
1 piece of fennel (optional)
188 ml (3/4 cup) red wine
1 bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay leaf (see video link below)
Juniper berries (optional)
1 litre (approx. 4 cups) of water
Instead of boring you with my explanation of how to make Court Bouillon, here’s a super useful video:
NOTE: Modern Court Bouillon uses white wine, while our recipe calls for red. This is obviously going to make a big difference in both the taste and appearance of the final dish. It’s your call on which one you use.
And here’s a video on how to make a proper bouquet garni:
Step 2: Poach Your Fish
Place fish (skin on) in pan of COOL bouillon
Bring just to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until fish is cooked
Carefully remove cooked fish from the bouillon
Strain your bouillon. Reserve 2 cups of the clear liquid for this dish. Set the rest aside.
Separate the fish from the skin and bones. Flake the fish back into the Court Bouillon.
Step 3: Meanwhile …. Make Your Panada
Panada is a simple mixture of bread, milk and seasoning traditionally used as a thickener. To make it you’ll need 120 grams (1/4 lb) of stale bread, crust removed and cubed 150 ml (a generous 1/2 cup) milk
In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer over medium heat.
Soak the cubed bread in boiled milk until very soft.
Strain away the milk, reserving the soaked bread
Add add cloves, ginger and lemon juice
Process the soaked bread mixture in a food processor to form a smooth paste.
Step 4 - Finish Your Dish
Stir the Panada paste into your fish. The end result should be about as thick as scrambled eggs. Add a little of the reserved court bouillon if the mixture is too thick.
Serve on thickly buttered hot toasts.
NOTE: Don’t throw away any left over court bouillon. Refrigerate or freeze for future use.
So there you have it. Give Nombles of Porpas a try in your kitchen and let us know how it turns out. Remember, post a photo of your results on the Colony of Avalon Facebook page for a chance to win weekly and grand prizes. Up for grabs this week? Your very own copy of Jeremy Charles’ Wildness: An Ode to Newfoundland and Labrador published by Phaidon Press.