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
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
  • Get to the point
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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing