With hundreds of cookbooks sitting on my shelves, at home, it is rare that I come across a book that I find to be an education from front to back covers. Not so with the Third Edition of Alan Davidson's "North Atlantic Seafood - A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes". This is exactly the kind of book I have been searching for, trying to fill in a few gaps in my reference library. It's a cookbook, a guide to fish and shellfish, a guide to the maritime foods of Western Europe and Eastern North American, and a travel guide all rolled into one. In other words, it's a great addition to my reference collection. It is no wonder that The James Beard Foundation has listed "North Atlantic Seafood" to its "Cookbook Hall of Fame".
The book itself, originally published in 1979, has changed very little since the first edition. It is basically divided into two sections. The first half of the book is a catalogue of the most important seafood species in the North Atlantic, and its surrounding seas the Irish, Celtic, Norwegian, North, and Baltic Seas. Davidson does admit that this catalogue is somewhat arbitrary as fish from the Southern Atlantic do travel northwards sometimes and fish from the North Atlantic can be found in southern waters. Here you will find all the different types of Cod, Herring, Mackerel, Lobsters and Clams that are important to the countries of the North Atlantic, but you will also find lesser know fish such as the Sea Lamprey, the Gurnard, the Lumpfish, and numerous rays. Each fish in the catalogue is given a full description, a black and white rendering, its common name and scientific name along with the names from all the countries that it is an important fish for. He also gives a brief culinary description on how the fish is commonly used, what countries use it most, and its historical significance.
The second part of the book is the Recipes, and this is really where Davidson shines. First off, instead of grouping recipes by fish, he groups them by country starting down in Portugal, then Spain, then moving northwards through Europe, and on to North America via Iceland and Greenland. In North America he moves from Canada down to New England, the Mid-Atlantic States and finally the Carolinas and Georgia before hopping back across the Ocean to finish up in the British Isles. At each stop he makes, he really gives you a sense of the cuisine, from the Mediterranean influences of Olive Oil, chile peppers, and tomatoes in Spain and Portugal to the cream and butter laden fish dishes of Normandy and Brittany. What I really enjoy though is the fact that he looks beyond the cliché dishes of each region. Davidson has spent a lot of time searching out regional or historical dishes that may not be known beyond that area. Of course, there are discussions of Salt Cod and Pickled Herrings, how can you not when writing a "comprehensive" guide to the seafood of the North Atlantic but there are also recipes like Congro Ensopado a Moda de Braganca (Conger Eel Stew from Portugal), Blanc de Seiche Grille (Grilled Cuttlefish from France) and Treska s Sousom iz Vishen' i Krasnovo Vina (Cod with a Cherry and Red Wine Sauce from the Soviet Union). Most of the recipes in the book are pretty straight forward and easy to recreate at home. Some take a little more knowledge and are a little more complicated, while others are given more for their historical significance, and others will be beyond the reach of most North Americans as some of these fish rarely are seen on this side of the Atlantic.
One thing is for certain though, this book is a must have for anyone serious about cooking. The wealth of knowledge that Davidson has collected is impressive and the recipes he as put together will keep you experimenting for years to come.