When Cynthia Nolan, long-time resident and gal about Palmanova and surrounding areas, first invited me to lunch about three months ago, she suggested going to a good fish and chips place she adores.
That idea appealed to me very much, but Cynthia later thought a restaurant critic should be offered something more debonair and dashing and took me to Modigliani, where I shared a superb fritto misto di mare with her and her carer, Susie, and also had a most memorable spaghetti alla pesto.
Last week I was back in Palmanova, this time with Xavi Solá, a young journalist and contemporary pop music expert on our sister paper Ultima Hora, the principal Spanish daily in the Baleares.
Xavi wanted to do a two-page feature on Cynthia and how she invented the package holiday in the early 1950s, and I went along as interpreter.
When the interview at Cynthia’s lovely home ended and Xavi had the information he needed and the photographer had taken pictures, Cynthia invited us to lunch.
Xavi and the photographer had to race back to the office but I accepted the invitation…gleefully, because we were going for fish and chips to O’Neill’s, where Cynthia and a few friends (because of covid restrictions) celebrated her 93rd birthday in June.
Friends have been raving about the fish and chips at O’Neill’s and it has been on my list for some time. So, as Susie stopped the car right in front of the bar, I crossed the road expecting a truly fine version of England’s national dish.
Well, I got it. And more. Much more. The fish was beautifully fried. The chips were lovely. The mushy peas were mushy and highly flavourful. Even the tartare sauce, which came in a tiny dish instead of the usual sachet, was excellent.
More often than not, I find that any kind of battered fish has been fried for too long. There are two main reasons for this. Cooks the world over know that just about all customers want their fish well done. No matter the cooking method used, the average customer likes fish well and truly cooked. And that’s how they get it.
But when cooks are frying fish in batter, they want to achieve as crisp a finish as possible…and to ensure supreme crunchiness they fry the batter for longer than necessary. And the fish also gets cooked for longer than is good for it.
That keeps the average customer perfectly happy, but for anyone like myself (who doesn’t mind eating fish that’s half raw) overcooked battered fish is sheer anathema. So at any fish and chips place I ask for the fish to be fried less than usual. When I made that request at O’Neill’s the waiter was interested enough to make sure I wanted a crisp batter. Crisp batter was what I wanted, but under it the fish had to be just cooked through.
That message got through to the kitchen and as you can see in the small picture, the flesh of the fish was like the pages of a book. That’s a sign it wasn’t overcooked.
I immediately awarded the fish a 10, Cynthia said it was splendid and Susie stated emphatically that O’Neill’s does the finest fish and chips she has ever had. And she’s been to all the best places in the 15 years she’s been with Cynthia.
If I had to draw up a list of the 10 best fish and chips I can remember, O’Neill’s would have to be on it.
Xavi, who is a frequent visitor to the Midlands and the north of England because he admires the contemporary pop music scene there, is also a fish and chips fan. I’ll get him to drive me down to Palmanova very soon so he can try the O’Neill’s version…and so I can have a repeat.
Crumble is easiest of all the toppings
When we make a stew, a casserole or a soup we can improvise from start to finish, adding a little more of one ingredient and somewhat less of another, depending on personal taste.
But when we want to do pastries we have to do them according to the established recipe — otherwise it would’t work. Pastry making is more of a science than ordinary everyday cooking and that discourages many cooks.
That is why crumbles became a popular dessert. The topping, which is a kind of basic primitive pastry once it is cooked, didn’t have to be learned and could be made simply by rubbing butter and flour together until they resembled breadcrumbs — and some cooks have even used breadcrumbs as the topping.
Although crumble is a recent recipe in the English repertoire of desserts, we don’t know who invented it and no published recipes appeared until the early 1950s.
It is almost certain that it was an improvised dessert done by a housewife during the Second World War, who throw the dish together with the few ingredients she had at hand.
The first crumbles were done with rhubarb, which many English people grew in their gardens. As there was a scarcity of all foodstuffs during the war years, an enterprising housewife realised she could make an easy dessert by covering a rhubarb compote with a topping of flour and margarine rubbed together.
It had to be done with margarine because butter was a luxury in those days as there was so little of it. Nowadays we see much more butter than margarine in supermarkets.
The apple crumble at O’Neill’s was totally unorthodox except that the basis was an incredibly fine compote of diced apples that would have got top marks from Escoffier — and he was a chef who demanded nothing but the finest.
The apples were diced quite small and probably cooked with some brown sugar that gave them a lovely colour and a scrummy taste.
The truly heretical bit was the topping: there was no sweetish crust that had been crisped by the oven heat. Instead there was a generous covering of finely crushed digestive biscuits and a side dish of custard.
It was all very idiosyncratic but it worked marvellously well: the dry digestive biscuit was a lovely contrasting texture for the soft apple compote and the custard added a touch of moisture and extra sweetness.
Don’t be tempted to pour the custard over the topping or the crushed digestive biscuit will go mushy and you’ll lose that essential difference in the textures. A lovely take on crumble and well worth its 10-rating.
It’s not at all easy to do a good fish and chips. You must know the basic techniques that are involved in deep-frying and you need experience. It’s absolutely essential that you have experimented with batters until you have one that really works, meaning that it has a crisp finish and is oil-free. I have no idea of the ingredients and methods O’Neill’s use but I do know that it produces one of the finest batters I have ever come across.
But a superb batter isn’t enough: the cook must also know how to apply the heat…and for how long. I asked for a batter with a good crispy finish but I also wanted the fish to be juicy and not at all overcooked. I got everything I desired — and the cook got a 10-rating. The apple crumble was most unorthodox because the topping wasn’t traditional and it wasn’t finished off in the oven. But the diced apple compote would have received top marks from Escoffier and the crushed digestive biscuit topping worked like magic. So that was another 10.
O’Neill’s, Calle París 98, Palmanova, Calvia. Tel:971-681751. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 1pm until they close…which is usually around 10.30pm in the winter.
This was Cynthia’s invitation so I had no bill, but the large fish and chips, which Susie and I had, was €11.95, the small one for Cynthia €8.30, the apple crumble €4.80, 2 waters €3.60 and my pint of draught Guinness €6.