I first encountered this delicious dish in a cookbook called The Recipes That Made A Million, by Franco Lagatolla, published in 1978. Lagatolla ran a few swanky Italian restaurants in the smartest parts of London in the 1960s. There is lots of name-dropping featuring the likes of Princess Margaret, Gregory Peck, and Frank Sinatra. The fact that I still have it after multiple house moves is testament to the fact that it has some really good traditional Italian recipes in it. The beef olives for one, and an amazingly good albeit labour-intensive lasagne featuring meatballs with pine nuts, sultanas, and lemon zest in them.
This recipe is clearly not traditional Italian, but it’s one of the most sauce-stained pages in the book. I hadn’t made it for many years, decades even, due to lack of proper smoked haddock in France. Of course when I did buy some, I wasn’t at home but in the UK, so I recreated the recipe based on my memory and a bit of googling. Hence this is a bit different from the original but just as good, and quite easy to make. Well, if you don’t count the poached eggs, which must be proper ones, not done in an egg poacher. Cheffy hint: poach them in advance, set aside in a bowl of warm water, and have a pan of boiling water ready to reheat them for 30 seconds when you are ready to serve.
I didn’t measure anything, so quantities are vague depending on how many people you are feeding. Start with the assumption of about 200 g of haddock per person and work from there. No photo either, sorry!
Fillet of good quality, undyed smoked haddock, cut into portions
Cherry tomatoes, 4-5 per person. Or use ordinary tomatoes, peeled and diced
Very fresh eggs, 1 per person
A little soft butter
Put the haddock in a wide frying pan where it will fit in one layer (if you’re making a very large quantity, you can poach it in a roasting tin in the oven). Add a bay leaf and some crushed or very coarsely ground black peppercorns. Just cover with milk. Bring to a simmer, cover, and poach for 10-15 minutes, until the fish is just tender.
Meanwhile, poach the eggs: bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil and add a good glug of white vinegar. Have the eggs ready, broken into individual cups, and slide them gently into the pan. They will swirl around wildly but quickly congeal into balls. Poach for 2 1/2 minutes, maybe 15 seconds longer if they are very large. Set a timer! Carefully remove with a slotted spoon and slip into a bowl of warm water. If any of them look messy, you can neaten the edges with scissors. If you’re not serving right away, discard the vinegared water and replace with fresh for later reheating.
Lift the fish out of the milk with a fish slice, and put it into a gratin dish into which it will fit in one layer. Halve the cherry tomatoes and scatter them over the fish. Pour the poaching milk into a roomy saucepan and boil fast to reduce by half. Do not turn your back on this or you will end up with a very messy stove — it will boil up and increase massively in volume. Once it’s reduced add a generous helping of single cream — a little less than the remaining volume of milk — and stir in. Now check the seasoning and correct if necessary with more salt and/or pepper.
If the sauce seems too runny at this point — it should be a coating consistency — mash together small equal quantities of butter and plain flour. Stir walnut-sized dollops of this into the hot sauce and boil, stirring constantly. Repeat until the sauce is the consistency you want.
When all the elements are ready, preheat the oven to about 170C. Pour the sauce over the fish to cover, and put in the oven for about 15 minutes, till lightly browned and bubbling. Warm the eggs very briefly in boiling water if necessary (30 seconds max). Serve up the fish and sauce, and place a poached egg on top of each portion.