A guide to two delicious—but surprisingly unrelated—flatfish of the same name
One of the joys of gastronomy is discovering that many foodstuffs have been given names that confuse rather than illuminate: misnomers such as ‘crystal lemon’ (a type of cucumber) and ‘jerusalem artichoke’ (not from Jerusalem, definitely not an artichoke). Perhaps surprisingly, both dover sole and lemon sole also make the list.
“We’ve no idea why dover sole has the dover part of its name,” shrugs Paul Day, fisherman and owner of Sussex Fish. “It’s certainly not particular to Dover.” With lemon sole, the naming issue is even more acute: technically it isn’t even part of the sole family. While both of these species are flatfish, they come from entirely different families: dover sole is a true sole, but lemon sole is actually a righteye flounder, more closely related to the halibut or dab. Megrim sole isn’t a sole either, but that’s another story.
From the outside, the distinction between dover sole and lemon sole is obvious, the former being large and scaly, the latter notably smaller and, well, lemon-shaped, with much finer fins. Underneath, “they both have white flesh, but dover sole is a lot firmer, with a stronger flavour.”
A real luxury
From a recipe perspective, “lemon sole is suited to being filleted and rolled, to give it a bit more bulk,” explains chef and demo kitchen regular Hayden Groves, “whereas the classic thing to do with dover is to cook it whole, on the bone—all you’re doing is brushing it with some butter, then grilling or pan frying it. Or you could do it in a meuniere style, which is in a sort of a nut-brown butter. It’s a real luxury, though quite challenging to do in a domestic environment given the size of the fish,” he continues. “These are old school, classic dishes that will never go out of fashion.”
Lemon sole is more delicate, requiring a lighter touch when it comes to cooking. “Be very gentle—lightly steaming or poaching the fillets is probably best,” Hayden advises. “It’s also a mild fish—clean-tasting, slightly sweet, not particularly fishy—so treat it sympathetically.” Think soft herbs and lemon.
Into autumn, Hayden suggests doing a fricassee with spinach “and some of the beautiful mushrooms that have just come into season.” Cook the mushrooms in some butter with a little garlic and shallots. Add a splash of white wine or 50ml water and make a quick emulsion, “then simply carry that over the top of your fish.” Luke Robinson conjures up similar themes in his lemon sole with porcini, artichokes and mussels. Evidently, it’s a winning combination. “You’ve got the woodland, and the sea,” says Hayden.
Whichever fish you choose, the key to cooking it well is taking care over timing. “Make sure you cook them till they’re only just done, otherwise they can become quite cotton-woolly,” Hayden advises. “Dover can probably withstand cooking slightly longer, as being on the bone keeps it moist.”
Beyond that, “I think it was Da Vinci who said, simplicity is the ultimate in sophistication—and that’s certainly the case when it comes to sole.”