Product of the week: wild sea bass

Categories: Product of the week

A highly seasonal fish from a fully traceable source

“It just tastes better—sweeter, almost” says Simon Whiteside, head chef of the sustainable seafood restaurant Roe. He’s talking—nay, raving—about the merits of wild sea bass, particularly when compared to farmed. It has just come into season: Furness Fish Markets is only in its second week of stocking this majestic white fish, one of the finest flavoured the sea has to offer. Firm yet flaky, delicately sweet yet by no means retiring, it’s around from late May until mid-August, the stall’s fishmonger Max tells us, “depending on how many there are.”

Stocks of wild sea bass are carefully regulated: fishermen can only catch so much per year in order to “maintain a balance and ensure a healthy population,” says Max—which is why Max’s Borough Market customers and chefs like Simon get so excited when it’s available. “People really want wild bass when it comes in. It’s pricy now, because the season’s only just starting, but the price will go down as the summer goes on.”

Fully traceable
The current stock at Furness Fish Markets was landed at Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast. Each individual line-caught fish is tagged with a tracking number, “so if you want, you can look up exactly where it was caught, and who caught it. It’s really important that our fish are traceable,” he continues. “These days you can’t do anything less.”

“It’s just what everyone should do: buy from in-shore fishermen, in British waters, when things are in season,” says Simon. “The world would be much better off if we did.” Simon is looking forward to cooking some next week: pan-fried, with nori gnocchi, basil purée and samphire. “I usually pan fry bass—or make a ceviche. It makes a fantastic ceviche, because it’s so firm and subtly flavoured.” Though bass is clearly a versatile fish—Simon even recommends barbecueing it—he favours salsa verde or herbs and lemon over cream-based sauces. “You don’t want to overpower it. Keep it light and fresh.”

Fresh, zingy dishes
In short: keep it seasonal. “I always think when something is very seasonal it lends itself to that season’s flavours, so in summer, that’s nice, fresh, zingy dishes,” says Simon, hence the barbecue. “A smaller fish would work well here, with lemon and sea salt”—although we should point out that ‘smaller’ is a relative term. Wild sea bass is invariably pretty sizeable. “You can get quite large farmed bass, but they don’t come in at around two kilos like wild bass do—and that size is just great. You can have big chunks, with really nice thick flakes.” It’s any cook’s dream, pan frying the chunky fillet Max will happily cut you and Simon will sing the praises of until he’s blue in the face. “It’s an absolutely fantastic product,” Simon enthuses, “which is why it is so easy to talk about.”