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This description has become a general term used in Britain for larger members of the "ray" family - some (including the raja batis) reaching up to 2 metres in length. These are all from the order of Rajidae and the best of these, and the one previously most generally found at your British fishmongers was the Thornback/Thorny Skate (Raja clavata) - these are under threat; 'Blonde rays' (a slightly less exciting alternative), are the variety now most common variety found -and still good.
The true skate species is raja batis, a deep-water variant, similar to a North American Mitchell. Although these are found in the waters around Britain and Ireland they aren"t very common and their flesh isn"t so highly regarded.
Only the wings are used, and these are composed of thick strands of flesh with cartilaginous bones running between them. Skate with black butter - where the wings are gently poached in a court bouillon before being finished with darkened butter, capers and vinegar - is the most popular method of preparation.
When buying skate, a slight smell of ammonia shouldn"t put you off- as this in the nature of all cartilaginous fish such as rays and sharks - it will disappear during cooking.
At the time of writing (Spring 2002), skate has become rare in the shallow waters around Britain and Western Europe, and has become an endangered species in some areas; mainly due to over-fishing. See our Recipe Section - 'Skate'