Save our soles

22 October 2003 by
Save our soles
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Samy Gicqueau

Not so long ago, Dover sole was a "must have" on any high-status menu. Escoffier's Guide Culinaire gave 188 recipes for cooking it. So what undermined the reputation of this prince of flatfish? Nothing too dramatic. It's still very popular at the Ivy, Claridge's and the Dorchester Grill, but it sometimes creates difficulties for chefs in planning, costing and execution.

After a century at the top of the league, it can be seen as something of a cliché. Other fish - from bass to monkfish, red mullet or turbot - challenge it for a place on increasingly short menus; it's expensive, costing anything from £9 to £12 per kg; it's in short supply; and restaurants often cheat by listing "sole", meaning lemon sole - half the price, less texture, less taste and a different species.

Then there's the fact that Dover sole, especially in England, is traditionally cooked on the bone. In the past, experienced customers were happy to fillet it themselves, and, if they weren't, a waiter did the job, which was a basic silver-service skill. Now, though, few waiters expect to do gueridon work and fewer customers are familiar with the skeleton of a fish.

The main problem, though, relates to changes in cooking style. Almost half the classic Escoffier repertoire involves smothering the sole in a velouté or cream reduction sauce, which is not the way most modern chefs want to cook. The alternative, too often, has been to coat it in breadcrumbs and fry it. Both preparations are valid (think of sole Normande or sole Colbert), and both have a place in bistros or brasseries wanting to offer a retro taste, but neither takes account of the way fish cuisine has evolved.

For Dover sole to enjoy an overdue revival, chefs have to move beyond Escoffier and look at it afresh. If that means throwing out the dog-eared textbooks they've kept since their college days, so be it.

Samy Gicqueau, of La Terrasse in Folkestone, admits to a strong classical grounding, but he's adapted the basics, making them relevant to his own fresh, bright style. In doing so, he's asked the questions - and found answers, too.

Freshness and storage

Skinning and trimming
The real price of Dover sole

Samy Gicqueau

Photo © Adrian Franklin

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