How to Cook Fish Like Virginia Woolf

June  9, 2015

You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. (Surprise!) Here, we'll talk them.

Today: A fish dish straight out of a Virginia Woolf essay—brought to you by Kate Young of The Little Library Cafe and soon-to-be women's magazine Mary Review, (which has three days left to go on Kickstarter)! 


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Over the last year, I spent a lot of time writing about my favorite characters in literature—and the foods they eat. These include Dickon and Colin’s picnics in their secret garden, Miss Maudie’s famous Lane Cake from To Kill a Mockingbird, and the clam chowder that warms Moby-Dick's Ishmael and Queequeg. These meals jump off the page, demanding to be recreated.


The three-course luncheon in A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf is rich in detail. Woolf evocatively describes a dish of Dover sole as “sunk in a deep dish,” blanketed with a “counterpane of the whitest cream,” and “branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe.” Yet, this still leaves room for interpretation. Is the cream thickened with a roux? Are the brown spots brown butter, a common sole accompaniment? In recreating the dish, I skipped both of these and kept the sauce simple, so the sole shines. I did add some tiny capers, whose briny bite mimics that of the sea. 

The fish is the perfect starter to serve when you want to impress company. Give each guest a whole sole and bring a jug of sauce to the table so everyone can pour as much as they’d like. The fish can also be served in fillets—once cooked, the flesh pulls away from either side of the sturdy backbone, making it easy to divvy up. If you serve the fish whole, as I did, the guests remove the flesh themselves. If your friends are anything like mine, they’ll end up picking at the bones with their fingers, ensuring not a scrap is missed. 

Dover Sole with Cream Sauce and Capers

Serves 4 

4 Dover sole, gutted (other types of sole or flounder may be substituted)
1 teaspoon butter
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
5 ounces (150 milliliters) dry vermouth
5 ounces (150 milliliters) fish stock (preferably homemade)
4 ounces (120 milliliters) whipping cream
2 tablespoons capers, drained
100 grams flour
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

Photos and text courtesy of The Little Library Cafe and Mary Review

Tell us: What literary meals would you want to recreate?

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  • Roy Johnson
    Roy Johnson
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Roy J. June 12, 2015
Keep in mind that VW didn't do her own cooking - it was all generated by servants, 'below stairs' (as it were).
AntoniaJames June 9, 2015
"There he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger's origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.” Kenneth Grahame, "The Wind in the Willows" ;o)