In Bath there used to be a very famous restaurant called the Hole in the Wall. Although it is still there, with the same name but different owners, I doubt if many of the visitors to Bath, or even the locals, know that it is the source of a great English cooking tradition.
If we are seeing a resurgence in English cooking, with a renewed emphasis on clear flavours and excellent ingredients, it is largely thanks to its owner in the 1950s, George Perry-Smith, who served “real food, prepared as a careful home cook would prepare it, with the best ingredients to be got and no short-cuts taken in its preparation”.
Paul Levy writes in his obituary of Perry-Smith, who died in 2003:
“People tend to think that there were no restaurants in Britain worth eating at before the food revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, but that is because they are too young or too London-centred to remember the Hole in the Wall at Bath, which George Perry-Smith opened in 1952.”
Perry-Smith came to cooking via a spell of teaching in Paris which enabled him to tour the country during the holidays. When he returned to England he brought with him a determination to offer the Brits the sort of food that Elizabeth David had written about, but which was nowhere to be found in the grey 1950s.
This famous signature dish of salmon in pastry has its roots in eighteenth century cookery, hence the currants and ginger. I found it in a file of cuttings dating back to the 1980s when, with a young child at my feet, I first started cooking in earnest. There are variations – some recipes say crystallised ginger, some say raisins, some say puff pastry – but the basics remain the same. It is a very simple recipe, easy to make and wondrously impressive to serve!
Two fillets of salmon, skinned and pin bones removed.
4 ozs butter, softened
4 knobs preserved ginger, chopped
1 heaped tbsp currants
1 tbsp chopped blanched almonds
Shortcrust pastry to enclose
Egg to glaze.
Cover a baking tray with clingfilm. Lay one fillet on it.
Add ginger, currants and almonds to butter and mix thoroughly.
Lay half of the butter mixture on the fillet
and cover with the other fillet.
Bring clingfilm up to cover fillets tightly and refrigerate to firm butter.
Roll out pastry thinly.
Unwrap fish and place on pastry. Season and cover with remaining butter mixture.
Enclose in the pastry, decorating with pastry trimmings, refrigerate until needed.
Preheat oven to 220ºC
Slash the pastry a few times to allow air to escape and brush with egg glaze.
Cook for 30-35 mins until golden.
Serve cold, hot or warm. It’s a very amenable dish and doesn’t mind waiting.
I prefer to serve this warm, with a watercress salad and some new English asparagus, but if you serve it hot the traditional sauce is Elizabeth David’s Sauce Messine from French Provincial Cooking (Michael Joseph, 1960).