The Fish Whisperer: Alan Davidson

I bought my copy of Alan Davidson’s Mediterranean Seafood: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes in Rabat, Morocco, in a little bookshop selling English-language books imported from England. Small, though well-lighted, crammed with books from floor to ceiling, the shop stood within a crow’s caw of the Oudaias. An immense maze of medieval houses glued together by mortar and whitewash so brilliant that in the noonday sun, it hurt to look at this place, resembling a village on a Greek island.

My reason for buying this book, aside from my propensity for coveting books in general, was not unlike the reason for Davidson’s writing it in the first place. In Tunis with the British Foreign Service, Davidson served as head of the chauncery. The confusing names for all the fish in the market perplexed his wife Jane and so Alan Davidson offered to compile a list of fish for her. With the help of a famous Italian ichthyologist, Giorgio Bini, and an explosive situation involving Sicilian fishermen in the Gulf of Tunis, Alan Davdison unwittingly stumbled onto the subject that would lead him to his life’s work. Not diplomacy, though it would be years before he left that, but rather writing and studying about food.

A few blocks away from the Oudasis, like a siren on the rocks, a fish market much like the one Jane Davidson lured me. Thronged with djellabah-wrapped older men and younger men in tight blue jeans and T-shirts reading “Omaha Firefighters” or “University of Illinois,” and a few veiled women, the early-morning market vibrated with the energy  of  a beehive on a hot summer day. The fish lay, well, like sardines in a can, row after row of shimmering flesh and bright eyes, signaling a freshness I’d never seen before.

But what were they? How did they behave in the face of olive oil or butter or bread crumbs? Were they fatty, lean? Did they curl up when heated?

And that’s why, when I discovered Davidson’s book, I snatched up the only copy left on the shelf, almost running to cash register, waving my rumpled dirhams (درهم)** in front of me.

His first book on seafood, Mediterranean Seafood,* starts with a detailed catalog arranged by generic name and families. Each entry includes scientific names, remarks on the fish in question, common names in languages other than English, and a listing of recipes found in the last third of the book.

In other words, like the gifted food writer he would become, Davidson made buying and cooking the puzzling fish a pleasant task, and not to be feared or avoided.

Thanks to Davidson, I cooked monkfish, John Dory, and fresh anchovies for the first time.

And much, much more.

*See Davidson’s other books on seafood: Seafood of South-East Asia (1976, 2003) and North Atlantic Seafood (1979).

**The currency of several Arab countries, including Morocco.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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