The fishy aperitif

Our friend Chris, with whom I cook regularly and dine almost weekly, has a serious allergy to any seafood. Rather than risk killing a dear friend, I’ve learnt to avoid fish products in my aperitif foods. However, when he's not dining with us, I love to go all out with a full spread of fishy nibbles.

Pintxos Gilda

I think it was Escoffier who advised to serve all fish or no fish at all on canapés. I wouldn’t be so strict as that, but it does seem to make some sense. I can’t imagine potted crab or smoked salmon tasting right alongside cured beef or chicken liver parfait. A mix of fish and vegetable dishes can work beautifully, though. The advantage of serving a selection comprised only of seafood dishes, of course, is that you know for certain they’re going to complement each other.

Octopus on chicory leaves and bottarga eggs
When deciding what to serve, think about balances and contrasts. Try mixing two fish and one shellfish or one smoked, one soused and one plainly cooked. Consider how you will mix bolder flavours with milder ones. You can also play with different surfaces to serve them on, too: toasts, pastry cases, bruschette, baby chicory leaves, cherry tomato shells or sliced and served with cocktail sticks to pick them up. You can establish a visual uniformity very easily by garnishing each plate with wedges of juicy, fresh lemon.

Get used to trying out cured fish of different sorts. They have that intensity you need in a good aperitif. Salted anchovies are the obvious place to start. One of my favourite aperitif foods is Pintxos Gilda, a popular Basque dish of anchovy, picked chili and an olive, all served on a cocktail stick. Eat them in one bite for a real flavour explosion! Pickled herring in a jar make a really good stand-by if you find yourself needing to serve something at short-ish notice. If you can find it, real bottarga is amazing. It’s pressed, salted mullet roe that has been very lightly smoked. It has a lovely, burnt orange colour and a firm, almost waxy texture. I serve it simply sliced, dressed with parsley and a squirt of lemon juice, but it’s also great pounded with butter and served on toasts.

Salmon roe blinis & Champagne
If your budget allows for caviar, I wouldn’t recommend serving anything else alongside it. You don’t want to spend that much money, only to have other foods distract from the star. Salmon roe, however, is much more affordable and looks pretty spectacular in its own right. Try serving it on blinis with a VERY thin smear of wasabi paste. I’m not a fan of  ersatz caviars like lumpfish roe. Better to serve something else altogether, something that isn’t trying to be something it’s not and tastes as good as it looks.

If we’re thinking about drinks to go with all this fish, you don’t want something to drown out those lovely flavours. Prosecco makes a good accompaniment to a fish-focused aperitif, especially if you’re including something as sweet and lovely as octopus, say. Manzanilla sherry is another, almost perfect partner for fishy dishes, or you could drift a little further west and introduce your guests to a chilled white port. There aren’t many cocktails I’d really enjoy with seafood, but I have found the Queen Mother’s old favourite, the gin & Dubonnet (sometimes called a ZsaZsa) goes well, and of course a well-made Martini simply sings with anchovy toasts.

Next time: Roses are red, violets are blue...


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