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Felix and Pascal Fusco move up and down by the fryers on a recent Thursday lunchtime, as customers trickle in to Fusco’s Cafe on Meath Street in the Liberties.
There are rows of battered sausages, battered burgers, and onion rings.
A customer scans the menu hanging overhead. It’s a typical chipper menu, save for one item that stands out: the ray.
“A group of women were in earlier today putting an order in for ray for their dinner tomorrow,” Pascal Fusco says. As they do almost every Thursday, he says.
Since Fusco’s opened in 1963, ray has been on the menu.
It’s now one of the last chippers in Dublin to sell ray, says Filippo Fusco, the founder, and owner. “In the Liberties, it is a place of tradition so you have to keep some things a certain way.”
The ray is caught by fishermen and brought into Howth. It’s a large fish, flat and wide.
Filippo Fusco used to go to Howth decades ago. Other chip shop owners would be waiting too, he says.
It was there that they would auction for the fish that came in that day, including ray.
“Now it comes from the shop next door,” says Filippo Fusco sitting down at one of the tables. Next door these days is Darren and Dave’s Fish and Poultry.
Darren Melia, co-owner of Darren and Dave’s Fish and Poultry on Meath Street, says that fishermen —like his brothers-in-law who own trawlers — can’t seem to sell all the ray that they catch now. He supplies Fusco’s chipper with blonde ray, although they also sell sand ray and rocker ray.
Many shops at fish markets and boats don’t sell a lot of rays anymore, says Melia.
That’s a problem that Norio Lupo comes across. Lupo runs Fusciardi’s Cafe across the city on Marlborough Street.
“We would love to keep selling ray but we find it very hard to get off our supplier,” he says.
“It’s still very popular, mainly with the older people. People ring in every week looking to see if we have it in,” Lupo says.
“From what I hear, most of the ray that is caught in the Irish sea is exported to France, Germany, Italy and Spain. They get more money for it over there,” he says.
One and One
“People used to just call [ray and chips] a ‘one and one’. One ray and one chip. I haven’t heard it being called that in years,” says Filippo Fusco, back in his chipper.
He’s wearing a black mask and glasses. He has a full head of white hair. A large picture hangs above, showing Filippo from the 1970s at a kickboxing world championship.
Behind the counter, Pascal Fusco drops a ray into the fryer. He leans with his hands on the counter.
“It’s a real Dublin thing,” says Pascal Fusco.
“People from the country wouldn’t really know about it themselves. You might find it in a few Limerick chippers but that’s about it really,” he says.
Melia agrees:“Ray has always been a Dublin inner-city thing […] down the country they won’t take it.”
Filippo’s daughter Norina Fusco walks out from the back of the shop. She has been busy working in the background but now chimes in.
“I remember when I was in Arklow we tried to sell it for a while and nobody wanted it,” she says. “But in some parts of Dublin, it is still a luxury.”
Getting the Hook in
Filippo Fusco has been retired for a year now but, at 80 years old, one job still is left to him: preparing the fish.
Preparing ray requires particular attention, he says.
“See with cod you use a knife, stick it in and slide it along the body,” Filippo Fusco says, sliding his hand horizontally through the air.
But the ray fish has a much thicker skin than other fish.
“For this, you need a sharp hook,” Filippo Fusco says, now clenching his fist tight and dragging it down through the air as if with great force.
“The hook goes in and then you have to pull down,” he says.
To cook the ray, you dip it in batter then drop it into the oil, Filippo Fusco says.
“The oil can splash up and burn your skin but this is something that I am used to. I don’t feel it anymore,” he says.
Combing a Ray
Norina Fusco walks out from behind the fryer with a brown paper bag in her hand.
At the table, she puts the bag down with a white dinner plate, cutlery, and a bottle of ketchup.
Filippo Fusco looks as if he has something that he urgently needs to share.
“There is a certain way that ray is eaten,” he says, looking at the brown paper bag.
He combs through his white hair, pushing his fringe from his face to the back of his head with his hand. “You use the knife and fork like this. You comb the flesh away from the bones and towards you,” he says.
Removing the paper wrapping from the fish, he runs the knife down the middle of the golden batter and opens up both halves of the fish like a book.
The flesh of the ray is a brighter white than that of cod or hake.
Filippo Fusco shreds the flesh, using the knife to hold the fillet in place as he runs the fork down through the fish and towards him.
The flesh is removed and the thin bones exposed.
Norina Fusco walks over to her dad as he carves the fish. “It’ll be cold by the time you’re done with it,” she says, smiling and rolling her eyes.
The ray is flakier than cod and lighter in taste.
“I don’t like fish myself,” says Norina Fusco, standing over her dad. She doesn’t eat cod or tinned tuna. But there’s the occasional exception.
“I only eat fish once a year I’d say,” says Norina Fusco. “And whenever I do eat it’s always ray. I don’t know why. I just like it.”