17 Nov 2022

A fishy business

Many of us will panic on being presented with a prehistoric-looking crustacean, or a flawless whole fish, complete with a glassy-eyed stare. We are aware that penetrating the hard carapace or extracting the delicate fish from the seemingly pervasive bones, is a dining challenge like no other. It involves skill, dexterity and the use of special implements. Our etiquette experts have put together a simple guide to eating fish and shellfish; we’ve also taken a look at some fascinating utensil history.

Until the 19th century, food at British dinner parties was served on large communal platters, requiring the host to carve joints and hand round plates. This all changed from the 1850s onward with the advent of service à la Russe. Separate courses were handed to the diners by servants; the stately progression of courses from soup to fish to meat to game to vegetables, followed by cheese and dessert, placed a new stress on the (now relatively uncluttered) table. Elaborate centrepiece decorations were de rigueur, there was a proliferation of specialist crockery, cutlery and glassware for each course, and diners were always presented with a menu card to help them navigate their way through this complex ritual. Clearly the etiquette challenges of polite dining were multiplying.

The fish knife first made its appearance during this period. The knife blade had a curved sharp edge, designed for sliding between the skin and the flesh of the fish. The broad blade was used to lift the fish to the fork, while its relatively sharp point could be used to lift small bones away from the flesh. The wide surface could also be used to scrape up, or spread any sauce served with the fish. The fish knife, which replaced the more traditional custom of using two forks to eat fish, became a much sought-after utensil, especially amongst the rising middle-classes who aspired to a gentrified way of dining. By the end of the First World War, however, fish knives had fallen from fashion, at least for the upper classes who had always tended to look down on them and preferred to wield two forks to fillet a fish. You may still encounter a fish knife and fork these days, but it is by no means inevitable.

Other specialist implements include lobster picks (or forks), which are used to extricate tender morsels of meat from the inaccessible nooks and crannies of the prepared lobster.

Lobster picks are used to remove tender slices of meat from the small nooks and crannies of the prepared lobster. They are generally made of stainless steel. One end is moulded into a two-pronged fork, or a sharp pick, which can be used for stabbing the meant. The other end may be shaped into a small spoon, ideal for scooping out meat from small spaces. Lobster picks, also called seafood picks, can be used for other seafood such as crabs and crawfish.

Finally, you may well encounter a seafood cracker, very similar in design to a nutcracker. This is simply used to crack the claws of lobsters and crabs, enabling you to use your fork or a seafood pick to access the meat within.

Seafood Challenges

• Lobster

A whole lobster in its shell will typically arrive at the table already cut into two halves, allowing easy access to the flesh. Use a knife and fork, or just a fork, while holding the shell steady with the hand. The big claws usually come cracked but if not, use special lobster crackers and then pull out the meat with a fork. If you want to get meat out of the smaller parts, use a lobster pick. Too much digging can look greedy and messy but too little may seem unappreciative, so aim for a balance.

• Whole Crab

Eating a whole crab is not for the faint-hearted – even with the correct implements it is a messy business requiring a degree of manual dexterity, so if you’re at all nervous about your ability to carry it off, order a dressed crab. If you’re ready for the whole crab challenge, you must first prise away the legs and claws from the body by twisting in a semi-circular motion with the fingers. Discard the legs and put the claws to one side. Pop open the shell by flipping the crab on to its back, using the fingers to remove the ‘tab’ (a kind of back flap) on the body’s underside. Take the top and bottom half in each hand and lift off the top shell. Then apply pressure with your thumbs to break the crab into two halves. Remove the greyish lungs and liver, which should not be eaten. Use a fork to tease out and separate the meat in the crab’s body from the cartilage, and use shellfish crackers to open the claws, enabling you to extract the meat with a pick. Discard the shell debris in the dish provided and rinse the fingers in the finger bowl.

• Mussels

Use an empty mussel shell as a pincer to extract the other mussels from their shells. Using a fork is also perfectly acceptable. The sauce around the mussels can be eaten with a spoon, like soup. Put all empty shells on the spare plate or bowl provided and use the fingerbowl as required.

Finger bowls are often served after eating shelled seafood.  The proper use of a finger bowl is to dip only the tips of yourfingers in the bowl, then pat them dry with a napkin.  If a cut lemon accompanies the finger bowl, first slide the lemon across your fingertips before dipping them in the warm water.

•Whole Fish

Work down one side of the spine at a time, from head-end to tail-end. Ease mouthful-sized pieces from the fish. Never flip the fish over to reach the flesh on the underside – lift the entire skeleton up and gently ease the flesh out from beneath – this was traditionally done with two forks. Small bones should be removed from the mouth with fingers and placed on the side of the plate.

• Prawns

If the prawn arrives intact, begin by removing the head and tail; do this by giving each end a sharp tug. Peel off the shell, starting from the underside, where the legs meet the body. If the prawn is uncooperative, discreetly bend it against its natural curve to loosen the shell. Finally, remove the black thread from along the back before eating the flesh. To eat a prawn served headless but with its tail attached, use the latter as a handle and discard after eating the flesh. Langoustines may be treated in a similar way. Use the finger bowl as before.

• Oysters

Raw oysters are served on a bed of ice, accompanied by fresh lemon wedges and sometimes mignonette (shallot and red wine vinegar dressing). They will be already shucked (ie detached), but use your fork to prise the flesh from the shell if any sticks. Squeeze the lemon over the oyster in the shell.

Pick up the shell and bring the widest end to the lips. Tilt, and slide the entire contents of the shell – the oyster and all the juices – directly into the mouth from the shell.

Alternatively, hold the oyster in the left hand and spear the contents with a fork (sometimes special oyster forks are provided), then drink the remaining juice from the shell. Either chew and savour the unique briny, metallic taste of the oyster, or swallow it down in one – opinions vary about which method is best.


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