It is hard to think of a fish that is more mundanely everyday than the goldfish, but this was not always so. When the little golden carp was introduced in Europe in the 18th century, it enjoyed several decades of exalted status among the well-to-do. Known initially as the “kin-yu”, it was imported from China by the British and slowly but steadily made its way through Europe. Early reports from colonists had described it as a very fragile fish (shaking a bowl of goldfish would kill half of them, they said) that was extremely hard to breed. Once introduced to Europe, it was soon found that the goldfish wasn’t all that fragile, and actually really easy to breed, so it soon took over the continent and lost most of its exotic allure.
I’d like to rehabilitate the goldfish, however, for it never lost its most important property: exceptional shininess. The combination of the orange colour and the metallic gleam of the scales makes the suggestion of gold quite convincing. Goldfish are really rather shiny, and they used to be worshipped for it. Paintings were made of them! Poems were written about them! So let me pass the mic to perhaps the most lyrical describer of pretty things ever to have lived, William Wordsworth:
“Type of a sunny human breast is your transparent cell;
Where Fear is but a transient guest, no sullen Humours dwell;
Where, sensitive of every ray that smites this tiny sea,
Your scaly panoplies repay the loan with usury.
Accept, mute Captives! thanks and praise; and may this tribute prove
That gentle admirations raise delight resembling love.”
Perhaps we should celebrate an annual goldfish shininess appreciation day, in the hope of giving this lovely little fish the admiration it deserves. As it happens, it is not just the shininess that made it popular; according to the 18th century Dutch breeder Job Baster goldfish tastes really great with egg sauce.