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24 september 2012

I love trout as much as the next cook, but I found myself nodding ruefully at a description in James Owen's Reaktion Animal book Trout:

With modern aquaculture and the proliferation of heavily stocked put-and-take fisheries (usually artificial lakes or ponds), the trout has become an everyday foodstuff. It stares dolefully from supermarket shelves and anglers' freezers, which are often poorly disguised fish mortuaries due to the build-up of uneaten corpses. (82)
My own angling is vicarious, but I feel the same pang when I check the freezer and see a delicious but overly copious stock of trout, rapidly gaining on me thanks to the bounty of friends.

Contemporary trout are also rather tasteless, through no fault of their own. And really, most contemporary fish are tasteless, and becoming more so all the time. Even a hyposmic like me can notice the blander and blander tendencies of our piscine food supply. The jack mackerel of my youth have been supplanted by neutral basa swai and tilapia. And trout are following the trend. It is enough to make one want to try a dish that Owen gingerly recommends, Norwegian rakørret, which seems to combine the most extreme attributes of sardines, Camembert, and kimchee.

Trout are revered in many cultures as fish of wisdom; they are also the ultimate angling challenge, the high-class adversary that English fishermen contrast to the quarry of "coarse" fishing. (The concept of "coarse" fishing, which Owen connects to the kind of fish being caught, is puzzling, and pretty much inapplicable to America, however much our fishing culture owes the the British.) Yet precisely because trout are so agile and so crafty, humans have engaged in millennial testing for dominance with them. Trout are outwitted, outmanaged, and kept under constant surveillance. They have gone from lords of the limpid stream to semi-artificial laboratory animals.

Even the Hemingway-like contest with trout in a mountain stream is now pretty much a managed event. Taking a stunning rainbow on a devilish fly is akin to the experience my six-year-old son once had in an Irish fishpond. Out of bits of sweet corn, and still troutless, he was ready to cry till he pulled it together and cast his baitless hook into the slough. A trout immediately took it and became that night's supper. Fish of wisdom, or fish of compassion?

Owen, James. Trout. London: Reaktion, 2012.