I’m in England now, staying in London for a couple of days before going north to the Yorkshire Dales. There, Canadian Olympic oarsman Adam Kreek, crooner Matt Dusk and I are leading a group of Canadian enthusiasts on a week-long hike (aka pub crawl) across the stunningly beautiful countryside. There will be many gastropublic delights, but for me the treats have already begun. At lunch today, my mother cooked something I had never tasted before – a dish she remembered from her own girlhood – skate nobs.
My mum grew up in Essex (just east of London) but she hasn’t seen these knobbly little lumps of juicy flesh and cartilege in a fishmonger’s for 70 years. These days they are restricted to the north of the country – and to Scotland, it seems. That’s where the skate nobs she cooked came from. My mother sourced them online through an Aberdeenshire butchery called Donald Russell (www.donaldrussell.com). They were delicious, the flesh characteristically skatey, tender but fibrous with sweet, creamy juices, slipping easily away from the shiny knuckle of cartilege. My mother dusted them with flour and slow-fried them in olive oil and butter, seasoning them in the pan and squeezing lemon juice over them once they were on the plate. As with a skate wing, she explained, you can also cook them with capers and beurre noir.
So what are these nobs exactly…? The supplier describes them as coming from the tail of the ray – and indeed a big skate would have a tail this thick, while the tail’s tapering shape would explain why some nobs were smaller than others, the biggest being about the same size as a ping-pong ball. Jane Grigson in her book on British fish cookery confirms they come from the tail area. But the French, perhaps inevitably, have a different opinion. They call these pieces joues de raie, skate’s cheeks, which shows a worrying inability to distinguish between the face and the rump – unless “cheeks” is also a pun in French. Paul Bocuse insists they are nothing to do with the tail, describing the nobs as coming from either side of a skate’s head. The only thing upon which both French and English experts seem to agree is that skate actually improves, gastronomically speaking, if it is a little ‘high.’ Any whiff of ammonia dissipates during cooking, says Grigson reassuringly. Our Scottish nobs were fresh as daisies. I shall look for more in Yorkshire and try to see whether they come from the front or the rear of the creature. Watch this space.