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Salt Encrusted Mediterranean Sea Bass

In the early sixties genuine French restaurants were shooting up all over the country and  a recommended one, somewhere on the bleak moors above Ramsbottom (Lancashire) was selected by our clique of rugby club gourmets for our monthly dinner.

Eight of us trooped into Messieur’s converted country pub, after having been two months on the reservation list. Only naturally, we had enjoyed a couple of beers on the way there and, on arrival, ordered up a further round of pints to wet our appetites. “Monsieur prefers his customers to drink aperitifs.” Lisped the overtly camp barman. “Where we come from, pints of beer are also classed as  aperitifs.” He was duly told by Percy, our spokesman.  “And if Monsieur wishes us to drink only sherry or Pernod, what are those for?” indicating the three brass pumps on the bar.

Not the best way to start the evening you may say but at least we had made our position clear. The meal was excellent and all was proceeding well until one of us; I think it was Ronnie, our front row forward, asked the waiter for salt and whose expression of disbelief  told us that  similar requests had been made in the past. He disappeared into the kitchen only to reappear again with le chef, who wished to know which of the gentleman among us who had dared to ask for salt? The culprit raised his massive right arm in answer, whereas Monsieur – rather foolhardily, I thought - plunked a one pound, paper bag of table salt (presumably one permanently kept on hand for such dramatics) in front of him.

You can only imagine how the evening deteriorated following the le chef’s brave protest. The final straw was placed on our group back when, following the cheese and a couple of rounds of Armagnac snifters , we dared, yes dared to ask for the unaskable - eight pints of bitter.

A somewhat calmer and more enjoyable meal involving large quantities of salt occurred in Tuscany. I quite accidently came across a fish restaurant concealed in one of those dilapidated blocks of warehouses and ship’s chandler’s which in those days crowded the docks at Leghorn (Livorno).

The restaurant (whose name long escapes me) was impressionably plastered from wall to wall and floor to lofty ceiling, with oil paintings, depicting sailing vessels, past maritime battles and portraits. It was one of those places where, the moment you cross the threshold, you knew you had found  the right place. It was lunch time in an Italian winter and the tables were full of serious (serious as in enthusiastic) diners. Here it was for the first time tried a whole Mediterranean Sea Bass (Branzino) encrusted in salt. Even now, when I occasionally I eat this dish I am reminded of that meal – in Leghorn not Ramsbottom - and my amazement that despite the amount of salt necessary the fish was so delectable.

The freshness of the fish is the most important factor with this dish. If branzino isn't available and at its height of freshness, substitute  red snapper. The salt crust seals in the juices but does not make the fish taste salty. Rubbing the fish with olive oil ensures that the crust will not stick to it, so use more than 3 tablespoons if necessary.
Do not be put- off preparing this recipe – it is much easier than it looks and you will be delighted with the sweetness of the fish.

Salt Encrusted Mediterranean Sea Bass
2 to 3 servings

• 1 (1 1/2 to 2 pounds) whole branzino, gutted, scaled and cleaned at the fish market, with gills removed
• 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or more if necessary, plus additional to serve at the table
• 6 egg whites
• 2 1/2 cups kosher salt
• 3 lemons, quartered
• Coarse sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Rub the entire fish liberally with the oil.
With a hand-held or stand mixer, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold in the kosher salt, being careful not to overmix and collapse the egg whites. Spoon one-third of the mixture lengthwise in the center of the prepared baking sheet. Place the fish on top. Spoon the remainder of the salt mixture over the fish to cover it completely. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a warm place and let it rest for 15 minutes. Crack and remove the salt crust.
Fillet the fish by peeling off and discarding the skin and removing the cooked fish from above the bones with a spatula or large serving fork, then gently pulling the bones up and away from the fish, exposing the bottom fillet. Serve with plenty of olive oil, quartered lemons and coarse sea salt.
Recipe from chef Johnny Monis.


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