When moving to a new place, I think it's best to adopt an attitude which involves saying “Yes” to everything. So while I'm generally not in the market for eel or other local fishy favorites (I haven't yet developed a taste for the fresh water varieties in the region), I said yes to my friend Laurent when he asked if me and my boyfriend Ben wanted to go along with him and his girlfriend to a pond draining party nearby my new home in the Loire Valley.
It wasn't actually the pond draining itself that was the main attraction. Even if seeing the gunky surface and flattened flora of an otherwise inundated pond floor is a pretty cool, what really drew crowds was the resulting sale of fresh fish scooped out of the dwindling waters of the Etang d'Aiguevives.
In honor of the event, eels, crawfish, carp, and pike were sorted and transported into oversize kiddie pools where spectators and armchair anglers could leisurely choose their catch of the day.
Seeing these monstrous fish- the biggest I had ever seen in real life- being plucked out of makeshift ponds and thrown into wicker baskets or firmly stowed under the rough wool sweater clad arms of burly outdoorsmen was something I hadn't prepared myself for- though I'm not sure what I expected to happen at an everything-must-go fish sales event.
I think I can speak for most of us when I admit to being totally divorced from the process of turning animals into food. I had left the step between pond, lake, river or sea to market stand intentionally murky and unexplored, for the very honest reason that seeing, or even things die makes me sad.
I'm actively trying to deal with this sadness and accept it as a reality that I can incorporate into my life with some sort of understanding. Recently I became the guardian of my first ever animals that I might end up eating one day- a small posse of chickens that I am enamored with, but trying not to be attached to. I think this recent fish fest was a good warm up to understanding what it is to raise, and slaughter, animals.
Being witness to the mass asphyxiation of fish is a troubling experience. It is also an experience that- like many moments experienced in the countryside- brings you closer to nature and your sources of food. The event was shocking at first, but then I understood it as cyclical- the regular cleaning of a pond means a rebirth and new, fresh waters. Some fish are kept to carry on the life in the pond, others are taken to homes around the region to sustain life outside the pond. With a respect for nature and its preservation, as well as the energy that life on earth gives us, fishermen and women do the hard work of transforming fish into our food.
While at the pond draining party I made my way over to the food counter, where the smell of frying oil and fish were attracting hungry villagers equipped glasses of rosé wine. The plat du jour was friture- a delicious dish that I had only seen in the South of France, but also totally made sense in this context, as it depends entirely on having access to super fresh fish. A little rosé doesn't hurt, either.
I asked the smiling woman at the frying station if I could watch her make a batch of friture and she kindly agreed, immediately sharing the recipe with me as her hands swiftly prepared the fish, something she had clearly done hundreds of times. Friture is this: small fish, flour, salt, and, of course, oil. "That's it!” the woman told me, throwing some freshly fried fish into a plastic dish and handing it to me along with a salt shaker. “You can add a little lemon, too” she added, “if you have one.”
About 1 cup (200 grams) per person of tiny fresh whitebait fish, like gudgeon, smelt, or sperling
Frying oil- something neutral like vegetable oil works well
All purpose flour
Fill a large or medium sized pot halfway with oil and bring to a low boil.
While waiting for the oil to heat up, prepare the fish. If you are eeked out by eating fish heads, you can remove them from your fish first- but if you do that know you'll be missing out on the true friture experience, so why not just keep the fish whole? Quickly rinse the fish under cold water in a colander and then shake to remove excess moisture.
Toss fish in flour until lightly covered, then add floured fish to the hot oil- you don't want fish to crowd or stick together, so do this in small batches. Fry for 3-5 minutes, or until fish are golden then remove from oil and place of paper towels to absorb some of the oil. Serve immediately with salt and lemon, if you have it.