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.

Ingredients

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

Method

  • 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.

Ingredients

1 fennel bulb, sliced, fronds/tops retained

1tbsp pastis e.g. Pernod

150 ml fish stock

salt and pepper

Method

  • 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

Chocolate, whisky and bramble tart with bramble ripple ice cream

As a dessert for Burns Night, I wanted to avoid the obvious traditional options. Much as I love cranachan made with raspberries, it is out of season. I enjoyed the local favourite of caragheen pudding at last year’s Burns supper but this year I was looking for something, well, a bit more luxurious.

I opted for a chocolate tart, incorporating the darkest of dark chocolate (81%), a dram and to my mind that definitively Scottish wild fruit that I have adored for all of my life – brambles. Some of my freezer stock of precious brambles from last autumn’s harvest was included in the tart and was also made into a coulis, swirled through vanilla ice cream to form a bramble ripple.

Brambles ready for collecting last autumn

Brambles ready for collecting last autumn

Although I nod to the traditional by including whisky in the tart, I must admit I am not a whisky lover. Even the finest malts, notably those from the islands (Islay in particular) have the whiff of TCP about them.  I am told if I persevere, I too will enjoy them one day.  Olives are often cited as an example.  During my PhD, my whisky connoisseur supervisor would arrive from Oxford and together with my other Edinburgh Uni supervisor,  we would head out with our research group of an evening to their favourite hostelry, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society members only premises in Queen Street, Edinburgh. There was much discussion about peatiness, tobacco, petrol and however else one choses to describe drinking TCP.  I was the Philistine at the bar requesting a gin and tonic.

Feeling the burn, post Burns

Yes, the duo of dyspepsia did as predicted and in truth, we could not face our lovely dessert after the haggis on Burns night – it containing yet more pastry (bit of an oversight there).

I was in danger of lethargy after haggis-eating and knowing I had proposed a 10km run, and despite the deteriorating weather, I decided to bite the bullet and get out there.  I had just walked the dogs and considered although there was a bit of a breeze, the weather window was good enough.  I elected to run around the picturesque island of Grimsay, a few miles south. The west end of the island acts as a stepping stone for the causeways that link North Uist and Benbecula. Circumnavigation of the island is a convenient 10 km.

View of Eaval from grimsay on a nice day

View of Eaval from Grimsay on a nice day

It was raining by the time I got out of the car and I could see, as is typical of these islands, that within a few minutes the situation would deteriorate quickly. Weather fronts were building to the south and banks of cloud were rolling towards me.  Nonetheless, I opted to run round the island south to north to take the worst of the weather along the exposed southern single track road first.  There were two observations that suddenly struck me about Grimsay.  I have driven but not ran around it before and it is a bit hillier than I recall.  Secondly, the south road is indeed very exposed to the elements.  I spent the next 6 km running into a pretty gusty headwind and needle-like rain with the occasional side gust that knocked me into the verge.

Once I got just over the half way mark, I got a tremendous tail wind as I turned north and the rain battered off my back, no longer in my face. Occasional gusts almost knocked me off my feet, but after feeling the burn initially, things got easier and I made it back to the car not too much over my predicted time.

Round the whole route, I only saw 2 people, both dressed in waterproofs, rushing out and hurriedly taking in washing, cowering in the squawl.  I was only passed by 5 or 6 cars, none which I recognised.  However, no doubt they had a good look and identified me as ‘That woman who is married to (we are not married) the violin-maker’ (as I have been referred to since my other half’s vocation is much more interesting than my own somewhat cryptic occupation) and questioned ‘What on earth is she doing running round here in this weather?’ Good to give people something to talk about other than the weather, at least!

Having recovered back at home, I could say that I unequivocally deserved a slice of chocolate tart with ice cream – and to watch a fun film – ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’, another gem from Aardman Animation. It is a silly sea-faring yarn, of not too competent pirates featuring a parrot that is in fact a dodo and a rather scheming Charles Darwin.  Plenty of pithy one-liners but it is easy to miss a lot of content first time round. I won’t need any encouragement to watch it again, very good fun and a change from our usual film choices.

Chocolate, whisky and bramble tart

A nod to the traditional, containing a dram, with added richness and silkiness. The ganache for this tart is sublimely super-smooth and rich.  Thank you to Michel Roux for the basis of this recipe. It is based on his chocolate and raspberry tart.

Pastry is pate sucree as used for passionfruit and orange tart.  I also elected to coat the base in melted chocolate again.  The brambles were moist from being soaked in whisky and also having been frozen, so I wanted to safeguard the pastry from sogginess.

The ice cream was vanilla, the same recipe used to accompany said passionfruit and orange tart, except this time, I made bramble coulis to swirl through it.

Chocolate tart with brambles

Ingredients

200g brambles

50 ml whisky of your choice

For the ganache:

200ml whipping cream

200g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids

25g liquid glucose

50g butter, cubed into small pieces

Method

  • Soak the brambles in the whisky for a couple of hours.
  • Make pate sucree as per outlined in my previous post, coating the pastry case with melted chocolate to seal it.
  • Strain the brambles from the whisky and arrange on the tart base.
  • Prepare the ganache: bring the cream to the boil, take it off the heat, stir in the chocolate until smooth using a balloon whisk, add the liquid glucose, then the butter, a few cubes at a time.  The glucose adds to the smoothness, as does the butter and which also gives the tart sheen.
  • Pour the ganache into the tart case and over the fruit and allow to cool for a couple of hours.
  • Put in the fridge and take out half hour or so before serving.
  • Cut the pieces with a warmed knife to get a nice clean cut through the silky-smooth ganache.  Serve with the ice cream.

Chocolate tartChocolate tart whole

Bramble ripple ice cream

Using the previous recipe for vanilla ice cream, make a bramble coulis and swirl this through the ice cream once it is churned by your ice cream maker.  Fold it in at the end of churning if you are making the ice cream by hand.

Bramble coulis

  • Make a stock syrup by boiling 150g caster sugar and 120 ml water together for 3 minutes.
  • Take 50 ml of the stock syrup and blitz it in a food processor together with 150g of brambles.  Add any leftover whisky-flavoured juice from the brambles added to the coulis.
  • Sieve and stir through the ice cream.

Bramble ripple ice cream

And let again the final word go to Burns:

Let other poets raise a fracas
“Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbit names an’stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!

Robert Burns – Scotch Drink, 1785

Chocolate tart and ice cream