Grilled trout – from field to fork
Keen to cook on the bank, Leon Challis-Davies reels in a rainbow and whips up a barbecued fish special with some grilled trout
There was no shotgun, nor a rifle, but instead a rod. This time of year is slow for shooting; a lot of quarry is out of season, so venison is high on many agendas, but I wanted to turn my hand to the fly. This doesn’t mean I stop eating the bounty of game in my freezer, but it’s an opportunity to look at other wild offerings. I admit I am
no fly-fisherman, but I am a chef and I love cooking trout.
The early summer months see trout, scallops and crab all hit restaurant menus in full force, and seeing as the simple but stunning trout is classed as a game fish, I was keen to catch and cook on the bank. Peter Thurston and Callum McInerney-Riley invited me to Thornwood Fisheries in Epping, in the hope of achieving just that. Boasting a ‘catch, despatch and cook on the lakeside day’, how could I say no?
It was a pleasant change from early-morning stalks, and I enjoyed a leisurely afternoon drive with the sun shining. It was one of those brilliant June days that saw most of the UK basking, including the fish. The warm weather can be very stressful for trout, but Peter assured me of the lengths he has taken to make his fishery one of best. With lakes as deep as 18 to 21ft, trout are able to drop to deeper waters to avoid the heat.
On my drive, all I could think about were the colours I would see when I caught my first glimpse of a fish. Arriving late in the afternoon, I was soaking up the rays when I was told that the trout were feeding first thing in the morning and again a couple of hours before dusk. My arrival time was perfect; only thing to do was to get the barbecue lit and start fishing.
Before long, the line was out. Five or six casts in, I was on, hooked in to a fighter. Nothing beats that rod bend, and that feeling of life in your wrist. The sun glistened on the water. Flecks of silver, pink and blue flew through the lake. The jumping rainbow trout was a sight to behold. All I had to do was land it.
I was in luck. As it was half term, Callum brought his three-year-old son Xavier along and he was a superstar. The excitement on his face was clear; beaming from ear to ear, he was concentrating hard on landing the trout for me, poised eagerly with the net and ready to scoop our first fish.
As we worked our way around the lake, it dawned on me that Xavier might not know that we planned to cook these trout. What were his thoughts and would he want to eat these fish? I believe education is key and the younger they can start the better. Callum confirmed that Xavier had had trout before, though not often. That became my mission for the day: encourage this cheeky chappy to eat freshly caught trout.
We continued up the lakeside, stalking our targets. Casting and waiting, longing for another bite, is an addiction. We had a few line bites, a few trout playing with our buzzer, but nothing hitting it hard. The action had slowed right down. Callum reached for his trusty fly case, bringing out what I can only describe as a frilly, luminous feather duster. I was quickly corrected — it was a large Blue Flash Damsel. It was so striking, I was sure the trout would mistake it for a mini-tuna.
I can admit I heavily criticised Callum for his choice of fly, but I was soon made to eat humble pie because within a minute of switching flies we were in again with a bigger fish. With more fighting, more colours flashing and more zigzagging through the water, it was like watching a marlin jumping. We waited for young Xavier to get the net and delicately scoop our bounty. Two for two, we were flying.
I was glad to admit I was wrong about the fly and happily succumbed to my forfeit of a cool, refreshing beer after our evening. We walked further around the lake to the point where three underground springs were feeding fresh water into the lake. Peter suggested we would find bigger fish at this end, and it was closer to the brick barbecue we were using.
I attempted a few woeful casts, but knowing this is the place to come for all levels, I carried on with a smile and no fear. Eventually, one of those awful casts produced a wicked take on the drop of our Blue Flash Damsel. Wallop. A really heavy hit made the rod double over. I couldn’t believe it.
Callum, meanwhile, had hooked a much bigger fish than either of my previous two and spent a good five minutes playing the fish and trying to land it. Our hearts were in our mouths. We didn’t want to lose this one. Thankfully we didn’t, and that meant we had enough for dinner.
I wanted to make this dish super-simple. With barbecue season really getting into the swing, I thought a grilled trout with lemon crème fraiche would be perfect.
You need three to four fresh trout fillets to serve six people. Salt and lightly olive oil the skin and the meat. Place your fillets skin-side down, just off the direct heat of your barbecue. They won’t take long to cook. Meanwhile, mix 400g crème fraiche, 20g chopped fresh dill, 10g chopped fresh mint, 10g chopped fresh chives, two diced gherkins, two teaspoons diced capers, four heaped tablespoons of pomegranate seeds, as well as one lemon zest and half of the juice.
Then, in a pan over the coals, add olive oil and the stems of a bunch and a half of asparagus. Once your asparagus is cooked, your trout will be too. I don’t flip my fish, using the skin to shield the meat; it will cook all the way itself, leaving a beautiful pink colour on the trout. To plate up, simply place the asparagus on the bottom of the plate (or board for sharing) with the trout on top and cover in the sauce. Garnish with some sliced heritage radish.
I saved the first mouthful for Xavier and didn’t even get the chance to put the board down. I gave him a loaded spoon and he loved it. Success. The lad really didn’t hold back after that, and Callum and I were lucky to get a look in.