Gay Pride and Gefiltefish

An unconventional Gay Pride weekend in London, involving fried fish balls in Hampstead. 

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It’s Gay Pride weekend in London, a date that appears to have passed me by until now. The parade through the streets of Soho starts at 1pm, but I’m going to miss it. In the continuing black comedy that is my life, I’m spending the afternoon in Hampstead learning how to make gefilte fish (fried fish cakes) with two little old Jewish ladies and a pair of notorious homosexuals. It should be an interesting cross-cultural collision.

I’m now feeling like a bit of a Bad Gay for not joining in with Pride. In times past, it’s been a bigger weekend – attending the parade with friends, languorous picnics in Hampstead Heath followed by a perusal of the flesh at the Men’s Bathing Pond, dancing until 3am at Duckie’s Gay Shame parties in Brixton, and the occasional random snogging of strangers in the rain at Hyde Park.

Over the years, it’s become less and less essential a fixture in the diary. I suppose I’ve fallen victim to the same middle-aged middle-class complacency that I used to complain of in my elders. Or it could be that needing to celebrate Pride feels less pressing than it once did. One of the great privileges of living in London is that every day can feel like a gay pride parade – at least in Old Compton Street. More happily, as gay culture shifts more and more into the mainstream, the number of ways we can celebrate Pride are as many and varied as gay men themselves. So this year, I’m being proud with saturated fat and kosher cuisine.

When I come out of the gym, it’s pissing with rain, and it’s gotten worse by the time I emerge at Hampstead tube. What a different tribe live up here – it’s all linen suits and floral scarves, little dogs under one arm and copies of the Guardian under the other. Everyone has the calm, cow-like expression of the perpetually well-off, and there’s nary a person of colour around, except those serving behind shop counters. My part of South London is fairly salubrious, but it’s a younger, sportier populace, with huge Bugaboo pushchairs vying for space on the pavements with the pert-buttocked joggers. Up ‘ere, the locals could all be extras in a Merchant-Ivory film, give or take a Volvo or two.

The fish ball making session is huge fun. Today’s shenanigans were organised by Sandra, my fabulous Streisand lookalike friend who invited me to my first Seder dinner earlier this year. Our host, Angela, is a head teacher at a school in North London, and is famous, Sandra tells us, for her fish balls. Angela’s house is a spectacularly well-preserved 60s modernist split-level apartment, all gleaming hard wood and period furniture, with floor-to ceiling windows looking out onto a perfectly-tended garden. One almost expects David Bailey and Catherine Deneuve to come wafting down the staircase in matching kaftans. Angela herself reminds me of my many aunties on my mother’s side of the family: wonderful homemakers, accomplished cooks, generous hostesses and filled with anecdotes about family history.

I’d had mixed reviews about gefilte fish before coming. My friend Laura claims that gefilte fish smells and tastes like rotting flesh, an opinion I’ve never been brave enough to verify personally. As the New York Times recently explained, the “hate” side of the love-hate relationship with gefilte fish may have something to do with people eating tinned rather than fresh fish, which does sound revolting. Angela promises us that these bad boys will be much tastier.

Angela prepares the fish balls in her kitchen: they’re made with a blend of minced fish (a mixture of cod, plaice, haddock and carp, which she buys prepared from her local butcher), matzo meal and minced onions, which she mixes by hand. Stephen’s face turns white as he watches Angela pour half a bottle of sunflower oil into a saucepan and heat it to boiling point. “I’m pleased I went to the gym this morning”, he murmurs, as Angela cranks up the oven extractor fan onto full. Angela explains that she usually cooks fish balls with a plastic bag on her head to stop the smell getting into her hair – though as she’s just had her hair done and there’s a photo shoot later, there’s no plastic bag today.

One by one, the Gentiles are lined up to have a go rolling the balls and sliding them into the boiling oil. As we work, we ask Angela when she first started making fish balls. Angela explains that while her mother was a great cook, in the great tradition of overbearing Jewish mothers, she seldom let anyone into her kitchen and didn’t think to pass on the wisdom to her children. This sounds very much like my own mother. Angela makes us laugh explaining her first attempt at cooking while on her honeymoon in Malta. Her kitchen is now filled with recipe books – the ubiquitous Jerusalem by Ottolenghi sits next to a well-thumbed looking volume called The Jewish Princess’s Cookbook.

Apart from the initial terror of working with boiling oil, it all works a charm. Angela points out, kindly rather than critically, that Stephen’s fish balls are so beautifully hand-worked that they’re too smooth to brown quickly. “You killed them with perfectionism,” I say to Stephen. “Story of his life,” Kurt adds. Learning my lesson from Stephen, I rough mine up a bit, adding a few fingerprints for an uneven surface. Sure enough, they brown up beautifully.

Angela encourages us to try a few as we work. They are delicious – the fish flavour is subtler than I thought, with a sweet creamy texture more like potato croquettes. Angela explains that gefilte fish was traditionally made on the day before Passover or other holidays, and then eaten cold on the day, in keeping with Orthodox laws that forbid cooking or operating mechanical equipment on the Sabbath.

After about an hour, the kitchen smells like a fish and chip shop, but we have a platter of beautifully cooked fish balls. Simultaneously with the fry-up, Angela has boiled a dozen or so fish balls – the slightly less calorific alternative – which are served with a slice of boiled carrot on top.

We sit down to lunch with the two platters of fish balls, a crispy green salad, a potato salad to die for, and a fresh plaited white loaf. The fried fish balls are served with chrein, the Jewish condiment made with horseradish and beetroot. The Ashkenazi Jewish diet, from which most Jewish ceremonial food recipes seem to derive, is fairly bland and largely spice-free, so the chrein adds a vivid splash of cerise to our plates, and a nice sharpness to the palate. 

It’s a lovely afternoon, and we’re touched by Angela’s generosity and her interest in sharing her love of food, which provides such an immediate and appealing insight into Jewish history and culture. Fried fish, which now seems such a quintessentially English dish, is in fact a Jewish invention. Food writer Claudia Roden writes that fried fish was introduced to England by Portuguese Jewish refugees in the 16th century. In 1860 a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe called Joseph Malin opened the first business in London’s East End had the bright idea of selling fried fish alongside chipped potatoes, which until then had only been found only in the Irish potato shops. It was a match made in culinary heaven – though perhaps not that great for the nation’s arteries.

The rain has finally stopped by the time we bid our farewells and roll merrily along to the Tube station. “I don’t think I’ve eaten so much deep-fried food since that house was built in the late 60s,” Stephen said. He invites me back into Soho that evening to celebrate Pride, but I’m too full of grease to move, let along struggle into a tight t-shirt. I decide to toast Pride more sedately, propped up in my armchair at home, watching Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian mom comedy The Kids Are All Right while drinking T2’s fantastic Just Rose tea from my new cast iron teapot. I’m in bed by 11.30pm. It’s hard, being this rock n roll.

As I fall into sleep, I wonder whether Proust ever tried gefilte fish. His mother was Jewish, but he was baptised and raised as a Catholic, and appears to have been irritated whenever anyone mentioned his Jewish ancestry. There are no reports of his visiting England, and it sounds as though his constitution was too delicate for fried fish – though he was supposed to have ordered a grilled sole for dinner on his death bed. It’s also interesting to speculate on how he might have dealt with the Bacchic excesses of Gay Pride weekend – perhaps, as I have, by bolting the windows shut and going to bed early.

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