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A small, oily, salmon-like, estuary fish (Osmerus eperlanus) which was once of huge commercial importance, but which has, over the last two centuries, gone into decline and largely disappeared from English rivers. There is a strong tradition of cooking them with hot spices such as Cayenne.
The preparation of smelt is mentioned in the verse cookery book 'Liber Cure Cocorum' of 1430 (Liber Cure 1430);
For a service on fish day....
For the third course glazed sops fine,
And also lampreys in galentine,
Baked turbot and salmon baked
All fresh, and small fish you take
Therewith, as trout, smelt, and minnows withal,
And loaches to them sauce vert shall.
(From Cindy Renfrow's translation into modern English)
...and given great detail in Mrs.Beeton
Original Receipt in 'The Book of Household Management' edited by Isabella Beeton, 1861 (See Mrs.B)
TO BAKE SMELTS.
318. INGREDIENTS. - 12 smelts, bread crumbs, ¼ lb. of fresh butter, 2 blades of pounded mace; salt and cayenne to taste.
Mode. - Wash, and dry the fish thoroughly in a cloth, and arrange them nicely in a flat baking-dish. Cover them with fine bread crumbs, and place little pieces of butter all over them. Season and bake for 15 minutes. Just before serving, add a squeeze of lemon-juice, and garnish with fried parsley and cut lemon.
Time. - ¼ hour. Average cost, 2s. per dozen.
Seasonable from October to May.
Sufficient for 6 persons.
TO CHOOSE SMELTS. - When good, this fish is of a fine silvery appearance, and when alive, their backs are of a dark brown shade, which, after death, fades to a light fawn. They ought to have a refreshing fragrance, resembling that of a cucumber.
THE ODOUR OF THE SMELT. - This peculiarity in the smelt has been compared, by some, to the fragrance of a cucumber, and by others, to that of a violet. It is a very elegant fish, and formerly abounded in the Thames. The Atharine, or sand smelt, is sometimes sold for the true one; but it is an inferior fish, being drier in the quality of its flesh. On the south coast of England, where the true smelt is rare, it is plentiful.
TO FRY SMELTS.
319. INGREDIENTS. - Egg and bread crumbs, a little flour; boiling lard.
Mode. - Smelts should be very fresh, and not washed more than is necessary to clean them. Dry them in a cloth, lightly flour, dip them in egg, and sprinkle over with very fine bread crumbs, and put them into boiling lard. Fry of a nice pale brown, and be careful not to take off the light roughness of the crumbs, or their beauty will be spoiled. Dry them before the fire on a drainer, and serve with plain melted butter. This fish is often used as a garnishing.
Time. - 5 minutes.
Average cost, 2s. per dozen.
Seasonable from October to May.
THE SMELT. - This is a delicate little fish, and is in high esteem. Mr. Yarrell asserts that the true smelt is entirety confined to the western and eastern coasts of Britain. It very rarely ventures far from the shore, and is plentiful in November, December, and January.
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