Hun­gry as the wolf

Hotly pur­sued for its firm, white flesh, the hand­some sea bass is a canny–if greedy–quarry, dis­cov­ers David Pro­fumo

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

David Pro­fumo pro­files the sea bass

The euro­pean sea bass has the mis­for­tune to be not only swash­buck­lingly hand­some, but also a sought-af­ter sport­ing quarry and one of the most highly prized fish for ta­bles world­wide.

Di­cen­trar­chus labrax is a pre­dom­i­nantly ma­rine mem­ber of the Per­ci­formes, the largest or­der of ver­te­brates in the oceans. Its kiss­ing cousins in­clude the mighty groupers and the el­e­gant North Amer­i­can ‘striper’, but the des­ig­na­tion ‘bass’ can be mis­lead­ing: Chilean sea bass, for in­stance, is just the re­brand­ing name for Patag­o­nian tooth-fish.

A pho­netic cor­rup­tion of the old word ‘barse’, de­not­ing prick­li­ness, sea bass are also un­help­fully known here as sea dace and king of the mul­let. The 1990s an­i­ma­tronic wall plaque Big Mouth Billy Bass is but a dis­tant scion of the clan.

There is some­thing slop­ing and vulpine about the fish the French call loup de mer (wolf of the sea), with its slightly prog­nathous chin, huge mouth and dark eyes ringed in gold. When first taken from the wa­ter, its flanks are strik­ingly sil­ver, with a pro­nounced lat­eral line (although smaller, ‘schoolie’ bass may be spot­ted). Di­cen­trar­chus sig­ni­fies the char­ac­ter­is­tic twin dor­sal fins, the fore­most one bristling with spines. Bass are very slow grow­ing—a big spec­i­men may be 20 years old and these larger ones tend to be lone wolves.

Wide­spread (and hotly pur­sued) through­out the Mediter­ranean, labrax is a sea­sonal mi­grant to Bri­tish wa­ters in late spring from its deep-sea breed­ing grounds, ap­pear­ing along our south and west coasts, the english Chan­nel and western Ire­land. In high sum­mer, shoals ven­ture in­shore, fre­quent­ing in­lets and es­tu­ar­ies, even run­ning up­stream to feed.

A by­word for vo­rac­ity, ma­ture adults eat sand eels, crus­tacea and sprats and will scav­enge on of­fal and con­gre­gate around sewage out­flows. In warm weather, they can be seen har­ry­ing schools of bait­fish on the sur­face—a grand sight for an­glers.

The sea wolf’s breed­ing habits are still mys­te­ri­ous, but the fe­male (which only be­comes sex­u­ally ma­ture af­ter 5–8 years) is an asyn­chro­nous spawner, dis­tribut­ing her mil­lion or so tiny eggs over a con­sid­er­able range dur­ing sev­eral days. Un­like, say, salmonid alevins, the minis­cule hatched lar­vae have no yolk sacs at birth, so need to em­bark at once on a plank­tiver­ous diet; their sur­vival rate to ma­tu­rity is just 1,000th of a per­cent.

As stocks of wild bass have be­come dras­ti­cally over­fished—by seine nets and pair-

trawl­ing—much re­search has gone into aqua­cul­ture for this lu­cra­tive mar­ket, although they do not thrive well in con­fine­ment. The fish is now widely farmed, but swanky restau­rants don’t al­ways spec­ify that their spigola or branzino may be a pen-raised ‘fake’.

Since an­cient times, labrax has been prover­bially wily: Aristo­phanes dubbed it ‘wis­est of all fish’ and Ovid de­scribed in de­tail its in­ge­nu­ity in shed­ding a hook. In mod­ern Greece, the ex­pres­sion ‘he has caught a sea bass’ (lavraki) still de­scribes some­one clev­erly solv­ing a prob­lem.

De­spite its greed, it can be a capri­cious tar­get, es­pe­cially those lunkers that lurk around har­bour moor­ings; an­gling baits in­clude gurnard belly, sole­skin flies, mack­erel last, rab­bit en­trails and lug­worm, although the best at­trac­tant (ac­cord­ing to the edi­tor of the ‘Coun­try Life Li­brary of Sport’s’ 1904 Fish­ing

in Two Vol­umes) was ‘de­cayed skate’s liver’. Bri­tish sport­fish­er­men—who thrill to the surg­ing fight of even small­ish bass and have made a cult of their pur­suit—are for­bid­den to kill any be­fore July 1 and, there­after, may only take one a day over 42cm (161⁄2in) in length. The present rod-caught record is nudg­ing the mag­i­cal 20lb mark.

Like many per­ci­formes, labrax has a firm, del­i­cate white flesh that fea­tures in the cui­sine of nu­mer­ous coun­tries, from the Ori­ent to the Mediter­ranean. His­tor­i­cally a dish for spe­cial oc­ca­sions, es­pe­cially in the rare, larger sizes, this ‘hol­i­day fish’ is the piscine equiv­a­lent of a magnum of Cham­pagne and com­pa­ra­bly ex­pen­sive. Recipes abound: roasted over fen­nel twigs, slathered in tar­ragon sauce or mar­i­nated Egyp­tian style as a samak ke­bab. Schoolies can be de­li­cious fried ‘à la me­u­niere’.

Fish snob­bery (or op­sophagy) was es­pe­cially ram­pant in An­cient Rome. The ec­cen­tric, pos­si­bly trans­gen­der em­peror He­li­o­gab­u­lus was so fas­tid­i­ous that he ex­tracted just the brains and milt from his lu­pus, and pa­tri­cian epi­cures paid the fan­ci­est prices for those caught in rivers, par­tic­u­larly be­tween two bridges on the Tiber whose denizens tasted no­tably sweet (although given their propen­sity for sew­ers, the prox­im­ity of the Cloaca Max­ima may have been a con­trib­u­tory fac­tor).

Bass were be­lieved to go blind in win­ter, when the stone in their head be­came too cold. By pre-med­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion, a sov­er­eign cure for specks on the cornea was com­pounded of frank­in­cense, ex­tract of lynx kid­ney, vul­ture’s gall, honey and the bile of a bass. ‘I Will Sur­vive’, as Billy the Bass used to war­ble.

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