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Fish # 216 John Dory Zeus faber ~ Biff Vernon
Oil on board 76 x 76 cm
John Dory is a curious fish, a flatfish in an upright direction, carrying great flowing spines from its fins, making it look much larger than its weight would suggest, and, of course, awkward to swallow. The dark spot on its flank might be mistaken, by a potential predator, for a large eye, another defence against becoming a dolphin's lunch. They grow to a maximum length of about 70 cm, sometimes weighing 8 kg.
John Dory are demersal and benthic, found at depths from a few metres to several hundred metres. They have a widespread occurrence in coastal waters from Scandinavia to the South Africa, Asia and Australia. It is rare in the North Sea, mostly living in warmer waters. Genome analysis reveals significant difference between specimens from European waters and Australasia and these northern and southern clades might best be regarded as separate species. We shouldn't blame Linnaeus for lumping them all together. The genome technology wasn't up to much in 1758 when he described this fish.
They are generally solitary fish, although smaller John Dory have been found to form small shoals. John Dory predate smaller fish. Although slow swimmers their tube-like mouth is extendable so when near their prey they shoot their mouth out and suck in the smaller fish.
They have a pair of sonic muscles on the swim-bladder wall that produce sounds by rapid contractions of the muscles. Two types of the sounds are emitted, a 'bark' and a 'growl'.
They are not an important commercial fish, but when caught fetch a high price. They are said to taste remarkably good. Since the head makes up almost half of the fish the filleted flesh may be disappointing in quantity but that head, boiled up, makes excellent stock.
What of the origin of the name? 'Dory' might come from the French dorée, gilded, or perhaps the John Dory, hero of an old ballad. Or another French connection, John derives from the French jaune, yellow. Jules Verne tells us, in Antarctic Mystery, "The legendary etymology of this piscatorial designation is Janitore, the door-keeper", referring to St. Peter, who brought this fish to Jesus. Another tale has it that St. Peter dropped a coin overboard and the fish caught it in its large mouth and brought it back up to the surface. The dark spot on the fish's flank is St. Peter's thumbprint. In the Mediterranean region the fish is known as St. Pierre or Peter's Fish. In Germany it is called 'Heringskönig', Herring King, since it slowly and majestically follows the herring shoals, in pursuit of prey.
As it fell on a holy-day,
And upon an holy-tide-a,
John Dory bought him an ambling nag,
To Paris for to ride-a.
And when John Dory to Paris was come,
A little before the gate-a,
John Dory was fitted, the porter was witted
To let him in thereat-a.
The first man that John Dory did meet
Was good king John of France-a;
John Dory could well of his courtesie,
But fell downe in a trance-a.
'A pardon, a pardon, my liege and my king,
For my merie men and for me-a,
And all the churles in merie England,
I'le bring them all bound to thee-a.'
And Nicholl was then a Cornish man,
A little beside Bohide-a,
And he mande forth a good blacke barke,
With fiftie good oares on a side-a.
'Run up, my boy, unto the maine top,
And looke what thou canst spie-a:'
'Who ho! who ho! a goodly ship I do see,
I trow it be John Dory-a'
They hoist their sailes, both top and top,
The meisseine and all was tride-a,
And every man stood to his lot,
What ever should betide-a.
The roring cannons then were plide,
And dub-a-dub went the drumme-a;
The braying trumpets lowde they cride
To courage both all and some-a.
The grappling-hooks were brought at length,
The browne bill and the sword-a,
John Dory at length, for all his strength,
Was clapt fast under board-a.
Traditional ballad, possibly from 16th century.
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