In 1936, M.F.K. Fisher wrote an amazing, creepily libidinal reminiscence of the time she ate a perfect truite au bleu, that rarely-encountered classic in which a live trout is knocked out cold, gutted, then poached in vinegar court-bouillon, which turns its skin a glassy indigo color. Blue trout is the sort of forgotten dish travelers used to come across in remote Alpine hamlets, deep inside Germanic woods, perhaps somewhere amongst yodelers. The ideal place, in other words, for M.F.K. Fisher to stumble upon the inspiration for one of her most iconic stories.
The fish she ate that day, she wrote, "was the best I had ever tasted." What makes the trout so special—beyond its color? Freshness certainly plays a part. Texture is also an important element: as with other super-fresh fish, the flesh of a blue trout delicately balances tenderness with firmness—not unlike the softly domineering woman Fisher finds herself so taken with in the essay. When done properly, truite au bleu is a triumph of seafood cookery; simple, visually arresting, the edible equivalent of Monet's Water Lilies. "This tastes like a beautiful pond," a friend of mine exclaimed, the first time he tried it. The legendary food writer Joseph Weschberg loved the dish so much he named his culinary memoir Blue Trout and Black Truffles.
The recipe's origins are disputed. In France, the regions of Alsace, Jura, Dauphiné, and others all claim ownership over the au bleu method of trout preparation. In 1872's La Truite, author Emile Jourdeuil argues for Swiss beginnings, and also recommends poaching the trout with a piece of lard in its opened stomach. James Beard traces the concoction back to both Switzerland and the French Alps. Escoffier adds that the dish was, at the end of the 19th century, also held in very high esteem in Germany. M.F.K. Fisher came across it at unnamed Burgundian countryside mill, then ranked among the finest restaurants in Europe.
Her essay also has a convoluted back-story. Initially called "I Was Really Very Hungry," it was subsequently re-titled "Define This Word"—a curious choice, as the word to be defined is never specified. Is she talking about desire? The piece is certainly steeped in sexual tension. Perhaps the word to be defined is hunger? "When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it," Fisher wrote, in the preface to The Gastronomical Me, the collection in which the story's name was changed. One word that gets obliquely defined over the course of her narrative is excess, not just in the sense of a surfeit of seduction and lust, but also in terms of the monumental amounts of food she consumed over lunch that day.
The main course, of course, was blue trout. It arrived at the suggestion (or insistence) of the restaurant's waitress, whom Fisher portrayed as an obsessive, enslaving, x-ray-eyed servant "almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil." The still-living trout was brought forth in a pail, from the stream out back, for pre-prandial inspection. Fisher looked down into the bucket "at the gleam of fish curving through its limited water." One should never eat a truite au bleu, the waitress explained, unless they've seen it alive. "For if the trout were dead when it was plunged into the court bouillon it would not turn blue," she continued. "So, naturally, it must be living."
And it is in precisely that condition that trout are found at M. Wells Steakhouse, which today carries on the noble, bizarre tradition of truite au bleu inside a former auto-body repair shop in Long Island City, Queens. Their live fish are contained within a two-ton concrete trough across from the restaurant's large grill area. Pieces of firewood are used to brain the fish before they are poached.
Some guests at M. Wells are, on occasion, afforded the opportunity to kill their own trout, with a log, before eating it. Those who have never dispatched a living creature before may find this experience illuminating or distressing. Some, of the Alice B. Toklas school—whose cookbook contains an account of the first time she offed a carp—might wonder if they will be arrested and taken into custody for committing murder in the first, second, and third degree. Others will find a deeper appreciation for the realities behind fishmongering. Either way, the end result is the same. (In M.F.K. Fisher's piece, the waitress outlines their restaurant's method: "His little gills are pinched: with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon and all is over.")
Hugue Dufour, the chef and co-owner of M. Wells, first heard about blue trout in an Ernest Hemingway book. "Hemingway said that it's the best fish possible, that there's nothing like it," Dufour recalls. "I was a big fan of Hemingway, so I was curious to know what he was talking about." Papa, who wrote of eating truite au bleu at an auberge in Chamby, Switzerland, felt that turning the skin blue "preserves the trout flavor better than almost any way of cooking."
Dufour decided to test this hypothesis at the M. Wells Diner's 2012 holiday staff party, which he and his partner Sarah Obraitis held at their apartment due to budgetary constraints. "I'd read about blue trout but didn't know if it would actually work," explains Dufour. The reason you don't encounter the dish often is that it requires living fish. "You can't really do it at home," Dufour says. "Unless you live on the coast and fish and do it right on the shore. The fresh slime has to still be there for the skin to turn blue." That slippery, mucilaginous coating dries up and dissipates pretty quickly (in an hour or so, Dufour attests), even if kept on ice.
When he first resolved to make truite au bleu, Dufour found a hatchery in Cold Spring Harbor willing to sell him 30 live trout. They were delivered into his bathtub on the day of the staff party. "So they're alive, in the bathtub, and the guy from the hatchery tells me I need something to aerate the water, like a pump, or else the trout will die. I had no idea. So I went to a pet store in Greenpoint to get a little pump. 'How big is your aquarium?' they asked. 'I don't know,' I said, 'it's a bathtub.'"
Pretty soon, the guests started arriving. The pump, unfortunately, wasn't quite big enough. "By that point, the trouts … they were not doing well—they were floating to the surface and turning on their bellies," he recalls. The time had come. Dufour didn't have a net, so he started pulling them from the tub with his bare hands. "They kept falling on the floor, so there was slime all over the hallway," he recalls. "I clubbed them by knocking their heads on the sink like I did when I was a kid."
He wasn't even sure if the recipe would work. "But when I dipped that first one in vinegar, and it turned blue like they say, I was shitting my pants!" he exclaims. "I remember thinking, This is insane—it works for real. I'd never had it before. I'd read about it and I'd heard about it when I was in France, but I'd never made it or even tasted it before. I don't even know where I got the recipe. When I went to Alsace, I asked around, and got an idea more or less how they do it. You kill it, gut it, dunk it in a white vinegar bath for ten seconds, then it goes in the poacher. Vinegar needs to happen quickly, to set the color. It doesn't matter how long you cook it for, it'll stay blue."
Then, as now, Dufour does the poaching in a savory, acidulated court-bouillon (it needs to be very salty, he specifies.) The cooking time only takes around four or five minutes, depending on the size. He serves it with boiled potatoes and browned butter, as well as poached cabbage, braised in wedges with butter and court-bouillon, perhaps with some homemade tartar sauce.
The night of the staff party, he made each fish individually, so it took a while before Dufour himself could even taste the trout. He knew the dish was a success, though, because every one at the party was raving about how good they tasted. "When I finally sat down and tried one, I said, 'You know what? Hemingway was right.'"
As a result, when Dufour and Obraitis were preparing to open the M. Wells Steakhouse last year, they knew they wanted truit au bleu on the menu. Dufour's father, who works with concrete, came down from Quebec (where Dufour is from) to help him build the trough. They invested in some nets to hoist the fish from the water. From tank to table takes under ten minutes, well before rigor mortis can set in. As a result, the trout curls when poached. "It is the curl you must judge, madame," M.F.K. Fisher was informed in France. "A false truite au bleu cannot curl."
On a good night at M. Wells, the skin of the fish turns the blue hue of an early summer evening sky. Tasting it is certainly worth the trek out to Long Island City. Many people lose their way looking for the steakhouse among the new, Ballard-esque high-rises. It isn't easy to find. The signs out front say COLLISION INC. BODY SHOP and SPECIALIZING IN FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC CARS. The exterior design consists of an aluminum siding garage door. "People trying to find us often end up in Astoria," notes the restaurant's host, Calvin. "Some taxis won't stop here because it's where they used to get their detailing done."
But being hard to get to is a prerequisite for places serving truite au bleu. The travel writer and wine merchant Frank Schoonmaker found it in "Orbey, back of Colmar," in 1946. (It was, he wrote, "one of the best meals of my life.") The Joy of Cooking's Rombauer family first encountered it in the Black Forest "at an inn bordering a stream." After M.F.K. Fisher ate it, she had to walk miles to the nearest town of Avallon to find a place to sleep. But now that it's in Queens, you can just take the E train or the 7 train into Long Island City—not far at all to find something as memorable and curled and strangely blue as ever.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2014.