Seabass and salt

Photography by Annie Peel
Photography by Annie Peel

Ibiza’s raison d’etre has always been due to a white substance loved by the masses; clamoured for, sought after, fought over. I am of course talking about salt. Without it life is bland. Without it there would be no flavour. I know someone who has given up salt. His eyes have become dull, his conversation drab, his dress sense dreary. Without salt, what’s the point?

Salt has the most extraordinary effect on food. Pour salt over a big fillet of cod and then hang it out to dry and you get a piece of fish that is like leather. Cover a seabass under a mountain of salt and bake it and the result is flesh that is moist beyond compare. So, one process draws out the moisture thus enabling it to be stored, the other process keeps the moisture in and must be eaten pronto.

Fish baked in salt is an Ibiza specialty. Not surprising given the vast quantity of salt available and the high quality of the fish (at the moment anyway, who knows what will be available in 10 years). But you can’t do it with all fish, at least not the way it is served in the restaurants. No, the fish must have scales and those scales must be left intact. If the scales are not there to act as a barrier between flesh and salt the result is inedibly salty. I know, I have tried it. When you go to the monger ask for your fish to be prepared for ‘a la sal’ and they will do the necessary preparation (which is simply gutting it). The most common fish used, and incidentally the most widely available, are seabass and dorade, both of them perfectly suited to this method of cooking.

Perhaps the only difficult bit is the filleting of the fish after is cooked. I will endeavour to explain how to do this simply in the following recipe. It isn’t that difficult and the results are so, so worth it.

The recipe itself is one of the simplest fish recipes around and one of the most exquisite. ALL the moisture remains in the flesh yet it is not overly salty. In fact it is perfectly seasoned. Your first bite is heavenly indeed, your mouth flooded with a sensation of the sea. The flesh is soft, moist and succulent.

Serve it with a tapenade or salsa verde and some boiled Ibiza potatoes.

Photography by Annie Peel

Photography by Annie Peel

Seabass* Baked in Salt Crust
1 x 400 – 600g seabass or dorade per person – ask for it to be prepared for ‘a la sal’
1 x kilo (more or less) of rock salt. I suggest Sal Torres as it comes from that famous glittering white mountain over by Salinas

Preheat your oven to 200 with fan or 220 without. Get an oven tray and cover it with salt. Lay the fish on the bed of salt and then pour over the rest of the salt until it is entirely covered with a good, solid layer of salt. Think being buried in sand on the beach.

Put in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove. That is it.

Now comes the filleting.

Photography by Annie Peel

Photography by Annie Peel

Being careful not to break the skin, chip away at the salt between the dorsal fin and the head. Continue to uncover the rest of upper side of the fish. When most of the salt has been removed, brush away the last bits.

Go back to the bit at the base of the head and stick a palette knife (if you have one or normal one if you don’t) in flat between the skin and the flesh. The skin will be dry and leathery and come away completely from the flesh. Get rid of all the skin and you will now have all the flesh awaiting your attentions. You will fillet the fish in four pieces. Two from the top side and two from the bottom.

Photography by Annie Peel

Photography by Annie Peel

With the flat of your knife, start at the tail and work up the top and meatier side of the body between the flesh and the spine. It should (and will with practice) come away in one piece. Next do the same with the rib side. If you are a beginner lift off the meat when you get to the rib cage.

Now lift the tail and carefully remove the whole spine and head away from the underside of the fish.

Again with your knife flat, lift the flesh away from the skin, leaving behind the ribs on one side and the spines from the fins on the other. Any flesh that is left on the bones can be removed when cold and given to a cat, a beggar or made into fishcakes.

*The fish in the pictures is a wild 2k fish and was more than enough for four of us.