It might have an iden­tity cri­sis, a friendly face and a spot on the dan­ger list, but at this time of year you can en­joy the del­i­cate flavour of this fish guilt-free, says Clarissa Hy­man


The story of the skate is one of sex, vi­o­lence and hor­ror. Per­haps that’s only to be ex­pected of a fish that can claim the shark as a cousin. And just like its big­ger, bad­der rel­a­tive, the skate (and fel­low/in­ter­change­able ba­toid, the ray) is a bone­less won­der, pos­sess­ing in­stead a car­ti­lagi­nous skele­ton, as well as men­ac­ing, un­du­lat­ing pec­toral fins that pro­pel it through the wa­ter and are so large in pro­por­tion they’re re­ferred to as ‘wings’.

As if that wasn’t suf­fi­ciently un­nerv­ing, the di­a­mond-shaped skate, with its long, whip-like tail, also comes with a set of ar­ma­ments that could dou­ble as weapons of mass de­struc­tion; spikes and thorns pro­trud­ing from the tough, leath­ery ex­te­rior pro­tect the fish from preda­tors. As a re­sult, if it finds its way into the kitchen, at­tempt­ing to re­move the skin from the flesh usu­ally re­quires a pair of pli­ers, and comes with a se­ri­ous risk of in­jury from one of those spikes. It’s a job strictly for those who are strong and brave enough to at­tempt it; while it’s less about skill than sheer re­solve and de­ter­mi­na­tion, my ad­vice is to leave it to the pro­fes­sion­als and the am­ple skills of your fish­mon­ger.

Just to add to the fear fac­tor, the un­der­side of a skate or ray can look dis­turbingly like a hu­man face. So much so, that in 16th-cen­tury Bel­gium it be­came a thing to carve out the belly of the fish to re­sem­ble a shriv­elled body. This car­cass would then be pre­served, var­nished and passed off as a small sea devil or mon­ster. They were known as je­une d’An­vers (lit­er­ally, ‘young per­son of An­twerp’), which was in turn an­gli­cised to ‘Jenny Hanivers’ by Bri­tish sailors who brought them home to their fam­i­lies. (If you haven’t al­ready Google-im­aged this, please do so now.)

Sex on the se­abed is also a pretty rough af­fair, in which the male skate (a bit smaller than the fe­male) grips his cho­sen one tightly, of­ten by the teeth as well as his fe­ro­cious claspers. Mat­ing can go on for some time, but the fer­tilised eggs won’t ap­pear for a month, when the fe­male lays them ready-packed into a horny cap­sule known as a mer­maid’s purse. These purses have a fil­a­ment at each cor­ner that grips on to some­thing solid to stop the eggs from be­ing swept away. The ju­ve­niles are about six months old and 10cm long when they hatch and swim forth to face the world.

And now we need to talk about the smell. Please ex­cuse the potty talk, but there’s no get­ting away from

the fact that they can have a dis­tinct whiff of the brick out­house. Skate store large amounts of urea (ba­si­cally, er, urine) in their tis­sues, which pro­tects them from the salt in the sea and con­trols their os­motic bal­ance. When they’re caught and killed, the urea starts to leech out and then break down, pro­duc­ing am­mo­nia – com­plete with its own very spe­cial fra­grance. This is, how­ever, a good thing. The doubt­ful con­sumer needs to re­mem­ber that some smell is nat­u­ral and in­di­cates the wel­come dis­ap­pear­ance of the urea. In fact, ray and skate are best when not eaten freshly caught, as it takes about 48 hours for the ben­e­fi­cial chem­i­cal changes to oc­cur. Be­fore then, the flesh can be tough and taste­less. How­ever, the smell and the am­mo­nia it­self should dis­ap­pear quickly dur­ing cook­ing, and one can en­joy flesh that is meaty, sweet, ten­der and lean with an easy-to-eat softly-cor­ru­gated tex­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to The Ox­ford Com­pan­ion to Food, ray and skate be­long to the Ra­ji­dae fam­ily and the names are in­ter­change­able; there is no bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis for us­ing one in pref­er­ence to the other, although the larger fish with long snouts tend to be called skate, while rays are smaller with rounded heads.

The best for eat­ing is held to be Raja clavata, the thorn­back ray (de­scribed in parts of the UK and Ire­land sim­ply as skate; it is also known as ro­ker in East Anglia). Other ray/skate found in Euro­pean wa­ters in­clude Raja mon­tagui, or the spot­ted ray, with pretty, dark freck­les on its back, and Raja ra­di­ata or starry ray – na­tive to more Arc­tic re­gions. In 2009, re­search found that the com­mon skate, Raja batis – iden­ti­fied in 1758 – was ac­tu­ally two sep­a­rate species: the flap­per skate, Raja in­ter­me­dia, and the blue skate, Raja flos­sada. On the fish­mon­ger’s slab, how­ever, it’s hard to dis­tin­guish the va­ri­eties as they all look sim­i­lar when skinned and cut.

Skate and ray tend to sit cam­ou­flaged and buried in the sand on the se­abed, wait­ing for prey to pass them by. To do so, they have evolved a fiendishly cun­ning way of breath­ing with­out open­ing their mouths. They use a vent on their top side, which al­lows wa­ter to pass over their gills and pro­vide oxy­gen.

Skate were once nu­mer­ous around the Bri­tish Isles, but pop­u­la­tions are now broadly re­stricted to the deep-sea lochs of western Scot­land and the west coast of Ire­land. Decades of over­fish­ing, es­pe­cially by boat an­glers who would throw them back dead into the sea af­ter pos­ing with them for cel­e­bra­tory self­ies, put them firmly on the en­dan­gered list. Happily, both recre­ational and pro­fes­sional fish­er­men are now far more aware of the im­por­tance of con­serv­ing the species, and take part in tag­ging pro­grammes. None­the­less, the MSC’s ad­vice is to avoid the com­mon skate.

The thorn­back ray, caught off Corn­wall and the Bris­tol Chan­nel,

is slightly less vul­ner­a­ble ac­cord­ing to cur­rent ma­rine coun­cil as­sess­ment. De­pend­ing on how and where it is found, the spot­ted ray varies be­tween sus­tain­able and un­sus­tain­able, and the MSC sug­gests al­ways buy­ing from sources that can as­sure the con­sumer of prove­nance and good fish­ery man­age­ment.

Raie au beurre noir (skate in black but­ter sauce) is one of the great clas­sic fish dishes, in which the tart and salty taste of capers pairs per­fectly with the ten­der fish, made lus­cious with lash­ings of but­ter and a healthy spritz of lemon juice. Del­i­cate skate fil­lets or wings can also be poached in wine or floured and browned with but­ter. Cook­ery writer So­phie Grig­son sug­gests a de­li­cious vari­a­tion that adds spices, in­clud­ing crushed pep­per­corns, co­rian­der seeds and dried oregano to the coat­ing flour.

And with its nat­u­rally gelati­nous sticky and pleas­ing firm tex­ture, it’s per­fect for a ter­rine. Skate cheeks – also known as ‘knobs’ – are nuggets cut from the body sec­tion of the skate or ray af­ter the wings are re­moved. Nor­mally they get thrown away, but they are eas­ily as de­li­cious as cod or monk­fish cheeks.

Skate or ray. Ray or skate. They’re the Twin Peaks of the ma­rine world: mys­te­ri­ous, scary and sim­ply se­duc­tive.

SKATE WITH BLACK BUT­TER, PARS­LEY, CAPERS, CRUSHED NUTS AND CRISPED KALE A su­per quick and sim­ple sup­per for two which works well with mashed potato if you feel the need for carbs. F&T WINE MATCH Bright and in­tense with flo­ral and cit­rus notes (eg...

SKATE, POTATO, AP­PLE AND SPINACH GRATIN WITH AP­PLE CREME FRAICHE Topped with ap­ple-spiked crème fraîche, this pretty dish suc­cess­fully pairs the unusual com­bi­na­tion of fish and fruit. F&T WINE MATCH Full bod­ied chardon­nay with sub­tle stone fruits (eg...

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