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
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

    £26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

    Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

    £24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

    £22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions