A Lesson In Sea Bass

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Since I started blogging for The Fish Society, I’ve learned about all kinds of fish, from shellfish and lobster, to the ink in cuttlefish (great in pasta sauce, once you get past its disconcerting black appearance!). This time around, it was the turn of sea bass.

Known by many for its wonderful flavour, sea bass is great on the grill and the fish equivalent of chicken breasts. Available across the world in numerous different varieties, when I called James last Friday for our regular chat, some extra-special sea bass was the order of the day – as you’ll have seen if you get The Fish Society’s latest offer emails – and not the kind you can find at every fish monger’s, either.

Hames said: “I must say I was a bit queasy when one of our best suppliers offered me ten of these very large fish, direct from the south coast. You can imagine that these fish weren’t cheap, so we had a bit of a debate…ending in him persuading me to buy all ten of them [laughs]. And let me tell you, they are fantastic. One of them is the biggest sea bass I have ever seen, and the single most expensive, too.”

Have you ever seen such a proud man holding a fish? I dare you to claim so! Click the image to see the prices.

So, how big was this huge specimen fish, fit for a banquet? If you have no idea, then you’re not the only one, because when James asked me to guess I was instantly clutching at straws and responded with “how big is it?” For some reason, I’d thought that asking this might reveal some important information. But as with all things fish-related, I should have known that all it would do was confuse me even more, seeing as I wasn’t exactly sure how big a big sea bass was and how big they could actually grow…

As if designed to confuse me even more, James responded with an answer to the weight of the fish, rather than the size itself: “it weighs 5 kilo,” he said, and, pulling a figure out of thin air, I said “£323?” The reply, fortunately, didn’t totally embarrass me. The actual price for this one single most expensive fish was £245. Impressive on any level, no matter what your knowledge of sea bass or fish in general.

What I hadn’t considered, though, was the cooking of such a big fish (but then, this was hardly a big surprise — I always leave my cooking until the last minute!). James said that “there’s just one problem. On the down-side, the smallest of them is 26 inches, head to tail…which means they’re two inches too big to go in any large, commercially available fish kettle. (A fish kettle is a pan of varying size designed with the specific purpose of cooking an entire fish. Looking for one? You can find these on The Fish Society’s site.)

James explained that “it’s fairly easy to get those up to twenty-four inches long, but even that isn’t always as simple as it sounds. But anyway, the point is that it’s not big enough for these fish, unless you take the head and tail off, which I wouldn’t advise.”

I’ve no idea what James is doing with this fish, but whatever he’s doing, he’s clearly very happy.

Here, much to my satisfaction, I was finally able to offer-up some knowledge based on things I could actually claim I’d learned on my own. “You want to keep the cheeks in,” I said, to which James replied: “yes, and you want to keep the whole impression of such a magnificent fish.”

If you’re still thinking of buying one of these beautiful monsters – all of which were put on ice within 24-hours of being caught – there’s no need to be put off! Simply wrap the fish in foil and roast it.

A photo which is sure to make a few big sea bass lovers more than a bit jealous.

Suffice to say, as James pointed out, obtaining fish of this quality is always a gamble, seeing as a customer with £250 to spend on one single fish is hardly common. Despite that, James and I remain optimistic. If I had £250 to spend on a fish, I’m pretty sure James would be able to talk me round.

As a last note, just to show how rare these kind of trophy fish are, James told me that “If you went to fifty fishmongers and said ‘get me a five-kilo sea bass’, then, frankly, it’d be a miracle if you found a single one who could help you. If you put down £500 and asked the same question, however, you might get a bit of action.”

Back with more next week.