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How to eat fish in France

In France, when it comes to fish courses, you may well be presented with the fish, the whole fish and nothing but the fish – knowing how to debone a cooked fish a la table, will stand you in good stead!

In many ways France is still a traditional country. While the number of actively religious citizens may be fewer than in years past, it is still not unusual to serve fish on Fridays. It was not unusual in my house growing up, either. I grew up in an Italian-American family with seafaring ancestors, and a father and grandfather who often took us fishing.  Having fried or grilled Mackerel, Bluefish or Bonita was certainly not new to me. But my dear mother and grandmother always cleaned and deboned the day’s catch.

Not so in France.  During a year in France, every Friday night, my landlady would prepare a traditional fish dinner.  It was always delicious. But my pleasure was inevitably tempered by the fear of choking. Madame did not usually serve her “poisson” with the head still on, but the fish was not deboned. I remember cautiously putting the fork to my mouth and very carefully and gently chewing, to identify any errant little bones. I think Madame simply found this appalling ignorance as more evidence of the inferiority of American ways, but by the end of the year, I had learned how to debone a fish with refinement.

bouillon-chartier-paris-waiterAll of this came back to me in a flash late last year, when I took my daughter and niece to Chartier Bouillon for dinner.  It had been cold and rainy in Paris.  We were lucky enough to get a table just before the rush started, without any wait.   As usual, we had a funny, funny waiter, who should have had a day job as a stand up comic.  He took good care of us though.  We sat back, drank our wine and savored our entrees (endive with blue cheese, simple and exquisitely delicious).  We made friends with the table next to us and translated the menu for them.  Then our meals came.  The waiter proudly set a plate with a big smiling fish in front of me. I was suddenly unnerved. I had ordered the daurade or gilt-head bream, and had forgotten the usual French presentation of the whole fish! For the first time I truly understood the phrase “glassy-eyed.” That fish was staring right at me, no matter how hard I tried to look away.

My pride, and that of America’s, was at stake.  I couldn’t falter in front of my girls, the table next to us, and least of all our waiter!  My decades old training took over, and in an instant I remembered the trick to deboning a fish at table in a cultured manner.  Don’t worry; it’s not hard. I carefully slit the fish in half horizontally, and gently turned out the top half. Don’t do this in an Asian restaurant though; it’s considered bad luck. Just flake away the top flesh to expose the bones. Using my fish knife and fork, I found the central bone, or “vertebrae,” carefully lifted out the entire skeleton, and then the “rib cage” bones separately. Crisis resolved; dinner, delicious. After deboning, it’s a personal choice as to whether the head and tail should be cut away; many  people think the head contains some of the best flesh.

Practice at home a few times so that when you’re in France, you won’t hesitate to order a whole fish or be daunted if one is placed in front of you. You’ll have some good eating and impress your friends, too.

Louise Denegre  blogs at MmeLouise and ParlezVousProvence

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