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