As the faithful repare once again to abstain from meat on Fridays, Fr Tim Gardner offers some lively lesh-free recipes ‘Bishops Restore Fish on Fridays” was how one national newspaper reported the decision of the Bishops of England and Wales to re-establish Friday abstinence from meat as the norm for all Catholics. At the press conference following the bishops’ spring meeting, The Catholic Herald reporter’s well-informed questions about Summorum Pontificum notwithstanding, it was Friday abstinence that generated most interest from the ladies and gentlemen of the press. This came as a slight surprise to me, because in some measure “fish on Fridays” never really went away. I recall walking through Oxford many times surrounded by the unmistakable smell of fish and chips being extractor-fanned out of college kitchens on to the street; a menu replicated in countless other non-Catholic kitchens up and down the country. While the friars might have sat down to shepherd’s pie on a Friday night, their religious tradition had become embedded in the secular world as securely as hot-cross buns and the Easter lamb.
A great deal of what we know about the early English diet comes from a Latin vocabulary written by F-lfric, Archbishop of Canterbury from 995. It was written in the form of dialogues: with the baker, the ploughman, the fisherman, the shepherd. From it we know that in spring and summer women made cheese and butter from the milk of sheep or goats before smoking the cheese and salting the butter to preserve it. In gardens, people grew carrots (purple in those days), leeks, garlic and herbs like rue and fennel. Kale was a popular winter vegetable and for a time gave February its Old English name of sproutkele. F-lfric lists animals eaten for their meat (pig, goat, deer, swan, duck etc), but the fact that our modern words beef, veal and mutton are Norma, rather than Anglo-Saxon suggests these animals were mostly valued for their wool, hides, milk and working abilities rather than their flesh.
The Rule of St Benedict stipulated that only sick monks could consume the “flesh of quadrupeds” but this was quickly interpreted as excluding fish and fowl, hence the monastic tradition of maintaining dovecotes and fishponds (stews). Bede railed against the excesses of the monastic table, circumventing not only the letter but increasingly the spirit of the Rule, and St Anselm complained that the clergy dined on “chicken spiced with pepper and cumin”. But fasting and abstinence shaped not only the culi nary rhythm of the week (no meat on Fridays or Wednesdays) but also of the year (Advent, Lent, Ember Days). Unless you were very young, very old or very sick, meat was absent from the table for a considerable portion of the year.
For the poor this would have made little difference as meat was expensive, but for the remainder it was fish that filled the gap. F-lfric’s fisherman talks about his tackle and nets, of eels that could survive out of water and of freshwater fish such as roach, trout, lamprey, perch and pike. From the sea came salmon, plaice, porpoise, flounder, cod, lobster, oysters and more, but it was the herring which topped the list. It came first for the same reason that the pig headed the list of animals: because it could be preserved. An important character in F-lfric’s colloquies was the salter, plying his cart between the salt producing towns of Nantwich, Sand wich, Droitwich and Northwich. There can be little doubt that it was Friday abstinence that helped to create the medieval fishing industry, though whether one can attribute the discovery of America to it is another matter. What seems likely, however, is that fishermen pushing westwards in search of new fish stocks did provide navigational information that would have been of use to Christopher Columbus in his journey to the New World. The influence of abstinence has been felt even more recently, though. The Fileto-Fish sandwich was added to McDonalds’ menus in 1962 after Louis Groen, owner of the chain’s Cincinnati franchises, noticed that his restaurants experienced a sharp drop in sales every Friday. Even today, 25 per cent of the 300 million Filets-o-Fish sold annually in the US are during the 40 days of Lent.
Many campaigners have recently urged Catholics not to embrace fish with too much gusto as part of their Friday observance, pointing out that more than a few species of fish are dangerously depleted. Fish at the top of the food chain – shark, swordfish, tuna – are best avoided because not only are they endangered, they are also high in mercury. But some of the fish that are best for you, including anchovies, sardines and mackerel, are well managed and in some cases abundant. It seems clear, too, that sitting down to a steaming dish of Lobster Thermidor is hardly in the spirit of Friday abstinence, so perhaps now is the time to try less glamorous varieties (such as pollack, coley and whiting).
Yet, what we are asked to do is abstain from meat, not indulge in fish, and in England and Wales there is no need to rely on bizarre meat substitutes or seek to have ducks reclassified as fish; we can simply eat vegetables (though vegetarians and what Anthony Bourdain calls “their Hezbollahlike splinter faction, the vegans”, will have to find another form of abstinence). Nigel Slater’s recent two-volume paean to the vegetable garden, Tender, has more than enough vegetable recipes to keep most cooks going for a lifetime, and even the champion carnivore Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall claims to have been eating “a lot less meat”.
Abstaining from meat is a small gesture intended to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice; an absence of flesh on the dining table that leads us to recall the Lord’s gift of his own flesh on the Cross. It will occasionally be inconvenient, that’s the point, but it should always be joyful.
Fr Tim Gardner is a Dominican priest based in London