Food: A Christmas tail

Seabass baked in a sea-salt crust - a sumptuous seasonal treat for the discerning non-carnivore. Photographs by Patrice de Villiers

eing a traditionalist, if I have to forgo the Christmas bird it must be for something special enough to make the swap worthwhile - and I am happy to exchange it for a seabass baked in sea salt. For years, I have treated a chicken thus, and seabass is even more of a treat. Being succulent and melting by nature, when sealed in a salt crust and baked, all of its finer points come to the fore.

There are just two ingredients in this dish - the seabass and the salt. But be sure and order your fish well in advance. Trying to get hold of a seabass on Christmas Eve will be about as easy as hitching a ride on Santa's sleigh. And two smaller seabass will serve you better than one large one. Apart from frugality - the weight of its belly and the waste involved - there's nothing more annoying than having to cut off its tail or head to fit it into the oven. Two smaller silvered fish lying gill to tail fin are just as alluring to behold.

From here, the first step is to concoct a paste with a mountain of sea salt and water, scatter half of it over the base of a baking tray, lay the fish on top and smother so that only the heads and tails protrude from the white crystal shell. After baking in a fierce oven, the salt crust hardens into a crisp pod, sealing in the juices. Once cracked and broken off, you are left with the most succulent flesh imaginable, imbued with the purest flavour of seabass that is perfectly seasoned, and not in the least oversalted.

The same theory can be extended to a variety of whole fish, including red snapper, salmon and turbot, but I have a personal soft spot for seabass. A buttery red wine and shallot sauce with a dollop of creamy champ is all that is needed in addition. If you do feel the need to pass veg around, then a smattering of sauteed wild mushrooms or a little wilted spinach would make fitting accompaniments. For me, Christmas dinner lies firmly with a tradition of red wines, and I would choose a soft red such as a Sancerre or a light Burgundy to accompany it.

Some recipes for baking in salt suggest you can get away with cheap table salt, but I feel quite strongly that it has to be a pukka sea salt such as Maldon, which I would rate over and above the wet French sel gris for the job. Recently, though, Maldon has been joined by a Welsh competitor called Halen Mon or Anglesey Salt. This is the creation of David Lea-Wilson, who until a few years back, was struggling to make a year-round living from his public aquarium.

With a firm belief in the unusually pure seawater from the Gulf Stream that surrounds him, he decided to capitalise on it. Producing Halen Mon took several years of experimentation and lab analysis not only of his own carefully harvested crystals but of all the other salts on the market, too, including those from the Mediterranean: "We looked carefully at sel gris, which has a certain trendy following, and our deduction is that the colour is not so much from the seawater as from the special clay pans used in that area." He reckons it's more polluted than British salt.

My initial introduction to Halen Mon was not entirely good. In the process of seasoning a salad of flageolet beans I had picked up in Caen market that weekend, the top came off the pot and the entire contents fell onto the salad, spilling over the edge of the worksurface and showering my 15-month-old son, Louis, who was standing directly in front of my feet gazing up mouth open. I can at least assure you on account of this, that it is not only free-flowing but dissolves with efficient speed. I couldn't rate Halen Mon over and above Maldon - they're both superb salts and either will do nicely.

Seabass baked in salt, serves 6

1.5kg sea salt

2 x 1kg seabass, gutted, and unscaled

Heat the oven to 230C fan oven/240 or 475F electric oven/Gas 9. Tip the salt into a large bowl, pour over 425ml water and stir until the salt is uniformly wet. Lay a sheet of foil on the base of a baking tray large enough to hold the seabass side by side - I use my grill pan. Scatter over half the salt, levelling it into an even layer. Lay the seabass top to toe and cover the fish with the remaining salt, leaving the head and tail uncovered. Bake for 30 minutes, by which time the fish should be just cooked. Take it out of the oven, lift off the upper crust of salt and carefully remove the fish to a serving plate. Fillet it by cutting along the backbone with a sharp knife and easing the flesh off. It makes life easier to leave the skin in place although you can't actually eat this. Spoon over the sauce and serve.

Red wine shallot sauce

You can make this sauce while the fish is baking, although the base can be prepared in advance and you can whisk in the butter at the last minute.

3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

3 thyme sprigs

425ml red wine

225g unsalted butter, diced

Sea salt, black pepper

Place the shallots, thyme and red wine in a small saucepan and reduce until it's syrupy and there are only a few tablespoons left; this will take 20-30 minutes. Discard the thyme and gradually whisk in the butter, working on and off the heat as necessary. At no point should the sauce simmer; season it about halfway through

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    Recruitment Genius: Factory Operatives

    £7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer ba...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003