Cooking with Saint-Pierre (John Dory)


As it fell on a holy-day,
And vpon an holy-tide-a,
Iohn Dory bought him an ambling nag,
To Paris for to ride-a.

~~ Child Ballad #284A: “John Dory”

I first met John Dory at the open-air fish market in Rabat, Morocco.

He’s a solitary soul. Doesn’t hang out too much with his own kind.

And he goes by many names, John does: Saint-Pierre in France (also Poule de Mer, Sea-Hen, and Dorée), Gall in Catalonia, Gal in the French Midi, Sankt Petersfisk in Denmark and Norway, St. Peterfisker in Sweden, Pez de San Pedro in Spain, Sveti Petar in the former Yugoslavia, Pesce San Pietro in Italy, Petersfische in Germany, Peixe-galo in Portugal, jean-doré in English (a “corruption of one of its French nicknames, “Dorée”), Christópsaro in Greece, Hout sidi sliman in Tunisia, Dülger (carpenter, because the bones resemble a carpenter’s tools), Kovač in Serbia-Croatia, and Petursfiskur in Iceland.

That day, his large brown eyes, blind to the North African sun, sank slightly in their sockets and the dark, almost black spots poised bilaterally on his golden skin caught my attention.

Fish on Ice (Photo credit: Tina Vance)
Fish on Ice (Photo credit: Tina Vance)

I’d never seen such as he before, not even in books. And his bizarre appearance could have only come from books, I thought, except that there he lay on cracked ice chunks, right in front of me,  a science fiction writer’s dream made flesh.

And indeed, in An Antarctic Mystery, science fiction writer Jules Verne suggested that “The legendary etymology of this piscatorial designation is Janitore, the ‘door-keeper,’ in allusion to St. Peter, who brought a fish said to be of that species, to our Lord at His command.” (Folklore claims that St. Peter is the keeper of the gates of Heaven Another legend claims that St. Peter’s thumbprint marked the dark spot on the fish’s flank when the saint threw the fish back into the water because it was moaning.)

The fish DOES moan when it finds itself out of the water, but that water never was the fresh-water Sea of Galilee: the fish’s habitat lies elsewhere, in salt water. Chiefly in the Mediterranean, yes, but another closely related species occurs in African waters, as well as along the coasts of New Zealand and Australia. John Dory doesn’t school with others of his kind and lives for as long as twelve years.

Associated with the gods in more ways than one, Zeus faber (and his cousin Zeus ocellata) possesses a large head as does the monkfish and only about 60% of the fish results in material subject to the cook’s skills. As I found out the hard  way (there not being enough fish for dinner), the  cook should plan on somewhere around four servings from one John Dory.

All Bones (Photo credit: Richard Parker)

What to do with John? A classic bouillabaisse wouldn’t be classic without the saint’s fish, its firm white flesh flaking and bobbing in the broth. Cook the John Dory in the same way as sole or turbot. Keep the bones and other “trash,” for this all makes a good fish stock.

According to the Delameres in their Wholesome Fare; or the Doctor and the Cook (1868),

John Dory, Boiled, is treated in exactly the same way as turbot, and is accompanied by the same sauces. Indeed, there is an antique pun that, when fishes marry , it will be John Dory with Ann Chovy. Dory, however, requires longer time to boil than turbot, being somewhat deceptive in this respect. When the parts near the tail and round the edges gape open and threaten to fall to pieces, the thicker parts in the middle will be still underdone. They may be safely allowed time to do; the thinner parts will not fall to pieces.

Cold John Dory is very good soused, or eaten with pepper, oil, and vinegar. Warming up again brings out its peculiar flavour, which is not delicate enough to obtain its admission into Vol-au-Vents or Mayonnaises.

Photo credit: marcovdz

And in The French Cook (1822), Louis Eustache Ude wrote:

John Dory is a fish of hideous aspect, but of which the meat is very delicate. Cook it in the same manner as the turbot; and when broiled, send it up with caper or anchovy sauce.

Food historian Alan Davidson wrote, “The elder Pliny remarked that the John Dory was the favourite fish of the citizens of Cadiz, in a passage which clearly implies that it was not so honoured elsewhere.”

No, John seems not to elicit much excitement in certain circles. But no matter.

That night, the night of market day, the night of the day I met John, after I drove home through streets near the white-walled Oudaias, in my kitchen with its orange-and-black-tiled walls, I tenderly took the fillets, cut so roughly, so expertly by the fishmonger in his brown kaftan and white knitted hat, and cooked them like the sole I once ate in a nameless Paris bistro, with lemon and parsley and plenty of sweet butter.

Magic, no? For a myth-imbued fish, yes.

Photo credit: Scott Ashkenaz
Photo credit: Scott Ashkenaz

Filleti di Pesce Gallo al Marsala (John Dory Fillets in Marsala) (adapted from Alan Davidson’s Mediterranean Seafood)

Make some fish stock from the bones and head of a John Dory of 1 kg (2 ¼ lb) or more. Wash and dry the fillets and coat them lightly with flour. Fry them gently in butter until they take colour. Add 300 ml (10 ½ fl. z) each of Marsala and fish stock. Cook gently for a minute or two, remove the fillets and keep warm. Cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Return fillets to the pan to warm through. Serve the fillets in their sauce. Garnish with a scattering of parsley.

Parsley seems associated historically with John, as in this other  brief recipe from Louis Eustache Ude:

No. 2.-John Dory boiled, with Lobster Sauce.

John Dory is boiled exactly the same as a turbot; and the sauce is the same. Put parsley round it, particularly in the opening of the head.


*The rest of the ballad, collected by Francis James Child:

And when John Dory to Paris was come,
A little before the gate-a,
John Dory was fitted, the porter was witted
To let him in thereat-a.

The first man that John Dory did meet
Was good king John of France-a;
John Dory could well of his courtesie,
But fell downe in a trance-a.

‘A pardon, a pardon, my liege and my king,
For my merie men and for me-a,
And all the churles in merie England,

‘I’le bring them all bound to thee-a.’
And Nicholl was then a Cornish man,
A little beside Bohide-a,
And he mande forth a good blacke barke,
With fiftie good oares on a side-a.

‘Run vp, my boy, vnto the maine top,
And looke what thou canst spie-a:’
‘Who ho! who ho! a goodly ship I do see,
I trow it be John Dory[-a’]

They hoist their sailes, both top and top,
The meisseine and all was tride-a,
And euery man stood to his lot,
What euer should betide-a.

The roring cannons then were plide,
And dub-a-dub went the drumme-a;
The braying trumpets lowde they cride
To courage both all and some-a.

The grappling-hooks were brought at length,
The browne bill and the sword-a,
John Dory at length, for all his strength,
Was clapt fast vnder board-a.

(For details about the ballad, with its allusions to pirates and privateers, click HERE.)

** Notes about the drawn illustration: “Part of the largely unpublished collection of the work of William MacGillivray [1796-1852]. The collection was presented to The Natural History Museum by MacGillivray’s son, Paul, in 1892.

It is likely that MacGillivray obtained his fish specimens from the fish market. It is probable that he would have looked for the best example of a particular type of fish and taken it home to paint it.”

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

5 thoughts on “Cooking with Saint-Pierre (John Dory)

  1. And I can add that I’ve had an astounding experience with Mr. (Or was it Ms.?) Dory while teaching at Chateau du Pin ialong the Loire. I had ordered turbot for our class, the teens were working on their beurre blancs, and when I opened the box, there was the most beautiful, most unusual fellow fish. Bonjour, was all I could say. Then, we set to work. So delicious.

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