Black bream with fennel

We don’t have much time to go sea fishing at the moment, and given the dwindling supplies of fish in our freezer, last week, I swung past the harbour at Grimsay and bought a couple of locally caught black bream.  I almost stopped for some langoustines, but resisted the temptation and instead chose this fine sustainable and economically priced fish.

This lovely firm-fleshed and sweet fish is a treat I have not eaten for many years.  Black bream (Spondyliosoma cantharus) were readily available at my local market in the Algarve, usually called sea bream (generically referred to as porgies in the US) and if you go to a fishmonger, not to be confused with the farmed gilthead bream. 

Black bream are wild fish found around the inshore shelf in North Europe and the Mediterranean.  It is a benthic/demersal shoaling species, often found associated with rocky or weedy reefs and also wrecks.  It is a carnivore with catholic tastes and feeds on invertebrates, crustaceans, encrusting algae and small fish. Black bream are protogynous, meaning they start out as females and then become male.  This form of sequential hermaphroditism is common in fish and can be triggered by internal and/or external factors.

Fascinating life history aside, it is currently considered to be a sustainable fish to eat in the UK. It is particularly good prepared as a whole fish, being attractive, robust and relatively easy to prepare. Black bream do require to be thoroughly de-scaled to remove the tough scales from the body and the sharp, spiny fins, notably the dorsal, should be removed before cooking.

bream raw

Black bream with fennel

This fish is easy to pan fry whole, skin slashed and gently stuffed with herbs.  I served the fish with fennel cooked in two different ways – braised with stock and pastis and also fried in a bit of olive oil and crushed garlic that the fish had been cooked in. I added some raw fennel tops fronds as garnish as well as spring onions. I served this with some baby red King Edward jacket potatoes.


Black bream:

2 black bream each about 500g

few sprigs rosemary

few sprigs thyme

3 bay leaves

clove of garlic, skin on

splash of olive oil

salt and pepper


  • De-scale the bream, snip off the fins and remove the head. 
  • Slash each side of the body 2 or 3 times with a sharp knife and stuff a small sprig of rosemary and thyme in each.  Place a bay leaf in the body cavity and season the fish.
  • Put some olive oil, a smashed garlic clove (skin on) and a bay leaf in a non-stick frying pan and cook the fish for 3-4 minutes each side until the skin is crisp and golden, but flesh not overcooked.
  • Allow fish to rest for a few minutes before serving with the fennel and potatoes.

Fennel with pastis

This accompaniment can be cooked alongside the fish and will be ready about the same time if this is done.


1 fennel bulb, sliced, fronds/tops retained

1tbsp pastis e.g. Pernod

150 ml fish stock

salt and pepper


  • Gently fry the fennel slices in some olive oil until they soften slightly and take on a bit of colour.
  • Add the pastis and allow it to reduce down to remove the alcohol
  • Add the fish stock and simmer to reduce and further soften the fennel for 2-3 minutes and season to taste.  Keep warm until serving.

Fried fennel garnish

This simply involved throwing some sliced raw fennel tops into the pan with the oil, garlic and bay leaf where the bream had been cooked and turning the heat up.  Fry the fennel until crisp and golden and serve over the braised fennel together with some raw fronds for contrasting textures. Garnish with some spring onions if you have some to hand. The fish was delicious and sweet and I can’t figure out why I’ve not been eating it more often. 

Bream and fennel

48 thoughts on “Black bream with fennel

  1. When I was growing up, porgies were considered a trash fish, or something only poor people ate. Of course that was decades before “cucina povera” became all the fashion. In any event, one of my wife’s restaurants recently feature a baked porgie, stuffed with herbs and served whole. Just incredible flavor, although a bit boney. My first visit to your blog. Very interesting. I can only assume you type like a demon. Ken

    • Thanks for visiting Ken. Yes, I don’t think bream are yet being widely eaten in the UK, less sustainable favourites like haddock and cod win. Interesting that such a fine tasting fish should be thought of as trash – probably the bones didn’t help their appeal. On the issue of typing, I may be fast , but I’m an awful typist and spend half my time covering the backspace key 🙂 Thanks, Tracey

  2. This is such a lovely post…I am searching for more fish recipe and this one came just in time. Not sure if I can get Black bream over here. What would be a good replacement?

  3. The fried fennel sounds good – every year I grow just a little in the hope that the rest of the family will realise that it really is a tasty vegetable. So far no luck, but maybe fried with garlic…

  4. Hopefully the recent swing toward sustainable fish will make this more widely available. It is by me, although I’d admit I don’t buy it as often as I should. And I need a new filleting knife…A great dish though, especially the fennel element.

    • Thanks. My fish choices aren’t always perfect – I have a weakness for monkfish, but I think as long as we eat a wide range of fish, it’s got to help, especially with positive news on discards. As for fillet knives, a good razor sharp one is essential, a blunt one dangerous. We have a Chroma Type 103 fillet knife, the knife is exceptional but it’s not easy for me to sharpen – requires a stone, luckily I live with a professional knife sharpener 🙂

  5. Can’t do sea fishing, as I am seasick on a boating lake at the park! The meal looked lovely though, and would make a nice change from my usual efforts at salmon fillets, baked red snapper, or grilled mackerel. Yum Yum…X

    • I’m not great on boats either which is funny given my marine- based job, and it has been an issue working on remote offshore islands to survey seabirds – especially loading to dinghies. It was a joy to work on St Kilda and use a chopper, I saw visitors arrive by boat and it wasn’t pretty 😉 Your fish choices are all great – mackerel is one of my top 3 fab fish – caught from the shore! Thanks, T

  6. Don’t think I’ve ever tried bream, of any sort. I do like most fish so this I’m sure was excellent. And I like the way you’ve cooked your fennel! Another veg I don’t cook with as it’s not a favourite. Had never thought of pan-frying them before. Shall try to do that next week, possibly with bacon chops that should be on special offer in one of my local stores.

  7. I need to eat more fish!
    I miss my time in Jersey when I often went fishing and mackerel was a staple and also good bait for the bass; which still remains my favourite on the rare occasion that I manage to eat it. Never tried bream, but it’s on my list the next time I have the chance; looks and sounds fantastic 🙂

    • Thank you, me too my freezer is empty, no fish left. Thank goodness the salmon and sea trout season just started and just in time 🙂 Bass is one of my favourites, but catching one has eluded me so far, hopefully this summer!

  8. Sounds delicious. Next time I can get to Leeds market I’ll see if they have any ‘black’ rather than the farmed variety, which I think is all I’ve seen so far.

  9. There’s a fish van who does the local market and I never visit it, but this week I’m going to see what he’s got and hope for something which will go with fennel…

  10. When are you opening the restaurant? Your recipes look so tasty and professional that people would pay good money for locally sourced produce cooked to perfection – I know I would!

    • You are so kind, although, I suspect it would take the joy out of cooking for me but I admire the commitment and drive of hard working chefs. I’m happy to cater for the occasional event though, especially if it is canapés 🙂

  11. How wonderful to be able to buy fish so fresh and locally caught. I love fish, so it’s sometimes frustrating living somewhere so landlocked. Love both of your ways of cooking it. The potato post is great too – share your dilemma whether it’s really worth growing maincrop spuds, espec with the wet, blight-prone summers. But then earlies, freshly dug can be a taste sensation, perfect with the fish you catch/buy locally.

    • Thanks, I too have lived in landlocked places, albeit you are never that far away from the coast in the UK, but certainly sea fish take a culinary back seat in these circumstances. Hopefully you can get access to freshwater/river fish. My seed potatoes have arrived, it may be their swan song, so I’ll give them a fighting chance this year – especially the maincrops!

  12. We’re to far inland for anything but a few freshwater fish to be sold so soon after being caught. Lucky you! Pan frying these was a great idea, made even better when you chose fennel. Must’ve been delicious!

  13. This looks delicious! I love fresh fish. When I was little, my Mom used to steam whole fish, as it was healthier. I prefer to pan fry mine as it retains more flavor, in my opinion. Will have to give this one a try.

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