Some fish are associated with summer because that is when they are in season and are at their best. But two of my favourites are available all year long yet I have them mainly during the summer months.
They are dorada (gilt-head bream) and lubina (sea bass) and the reason I eat them mainly during the summer is that they are best when grilled or pan fried — and in the hot weather I prefer my food cooked as simply as possible.
The dorada is one of the Spanidae family of which there are 21 species. In England they are known as the breams, although in America the usual name for sea bream is porgy. The golden star of the bream family is the dorada, which is the daurade of French cuisine.
Dorada is Spanish for the golden one and the fish gets this name because of the golden spot on each cheek.
The authentic dorada taken from the sea is so rare these days you seldom see it at the market. What you find in abundance is farmed dorada most of which originates in the Es Murterar fish farm in the Bay of Alcudia.
The adult fish lay their eggs naturally and they become larvae and then fry. They are then allowed to grow until they weigh about half a kilo, the size considered to be an ideal individual serving.
Farmed dorada make good eating but they can never be as good as those caught in the sea because of the wild dorada’s natural habitat and its eating style. The dorada has a powerful set of teeth, it molars being so strong they are a veritable crushing machine.
The result is that wild dorada can feed on a vast variety of shellfish and molluscs — including oysters, one of the reasons why wild dorada is so highly delicious.
The flesh of wild dorada is succulently fatty and compact and because of its diet, especially all those crustaceans and oysters, the dorada’s flesh is perfumed with the delicate flavour of shellfish.
Dorada can be fished all year round, but during the pre and post-Lenten periods it feeds on sea lettuce and is so enamoured of this seaweed that it gorges itself and eats nothing else over a two-month period. During this time it loses a considerable amount of its characteristic shellfish flavour.
The ancient Greeks were very fond of dorada and Archestratus, the Mediterranean’s oldest food writer, recommended it highly and suggested it be baked in the oven. He was also in favour of serving it whole, “even if it measures 10 elbows,” he wrote.
Old Archestratus must have been a fisherman as well as a cook, because this last phrase is a typical piece of angler’s exaggeration. In ancient Greece, an elbow was the distance from the tip of the fingers to the elbow. Considering that a dorada measures an absolute maximum of 60 cms and that this is less than one and a half elbows, the reference to 10 elbows can only be wishful thinking.
The Greeks dedicated the best species of fish to their gods and the dorada was sacred to Aphrodite, the Grecian Venus, or goddess of love. Perhaps this was because of the dorada’s pure white flesh with its sensual texture and seductive flavours. Or perhaps it was because the dorada was thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
But it could also have been because the dorada is a hermaphrodite, a condition that appealed very much to the Greeks. We’ll never know, but we don’t have to because the beauty of the dorada, even the farmed kind, is that it’s a fine fish and at around €3 apiece it’s great value for money.
When we have to cook a dorada, the bad news is that it must be descaled and gutted. The good news is that the fishmonger will do it for you. You can cook a dorada by every style in the book.
It can be baked whole in the oven, steamed or poached in a court bouillon and then served with a wide range of delicious sauces that will enhance its special qualities. In some parts of Spain they stuff a whole dorada with a mixture of white fish, finely chopped onions, breadcrumbs and eggs. You can also use any stuffing suitable for white fish.
A biggish dorada can also be cut into steaks and sautéed or oven-baked. Thick pieces of the fish, coated with flour and then deep-fried in very hot virgen extra olive oil, are among the most delicious morsels you can eat on a Mediterranean summer’s day.
Dorada can also be filleted, gently sautéed in butter or virgen extra olive oil and then served with light sauces. Sometimes the fish is served on a bed of sauce but other recipes call for the fish to be quickly cooked in the sauce.
One of the best ways of eating dorada, and the one I prefer during the hot weather, is by the Spanish a la espalda method. This entails butterflying the fish with the head intact and grilling the fish on a hot plate or under a grill.
You can also chargrill it but that is a good deal more difficult unless you are a bit of an expert at grilling fish over hot embers, one of the most difficult of culinary jobs: the chances of overcooking fish on a chargrill and making a complete mess of it are extremely high.
A special Spanish touch that changes a simple grilled fish into a gastronomic achievement is the refrito that is added just before the fish is served. It is easily made.
In a small frying pan with three tablespoons of virgen extra olive oil, gently sauté a big clove of garlic cut into thin slices. When they are of a nice golden colour add a generous teaspoon of finely chopped parsley. Stir well and cook for a minute before adding a few snippets of dried hot chilli.
Take the pan off the heat immediately, wait for half a minute and add a quick splash of vinegar. Put the frying pan on the heat for half a minute and spoon the contents over the dorada, flesh side up, and serve at once.
The frying pan oil must not be too hot and the sliced garlic must not be more than golden coloured or it will become bitter. If it burns you just start again because it will have an unpalatable acrid taste.
The little pieces of dried hot chilli must not be in the oil for very long or they will also scorch and give the refrito a harsh taste. And a quick splash of vinegar means just that — no more than half a teaspoon: too much vinegar will overwhelm the delicate flavour of the dorada. I prefer my refritos without vinegar, although that is not orthodox. The idea is to give a tangy finish to the fish.
The sea bass, or lubina as it is called in Spanish, is the other fish I have frequently during the summer. As a piece of marine design, the lubina is sheer elegance: an elongated svelte body, a basic silver colour with a dark back and a white belly.
On its own it is a delight for the eyes and a display of 20 at the fishmonger’s is a sight not to be missed. The fish market at the Plaza Olivar is the best place to see them en masse, but they are also in evidence at supermarkets if you get there early enough.
A dozen of them were lined up on the slab at Mercadona the other day, erect and shiny as if on sentry duty, and I wanted to buy one just because they looked so perfect.
But the lubina is not just a pretty face. It also tastes good and its firm flesh is boneless once the spinal bone has been removed. It can be cooked every which way you care to try and it is also good cold, one of the reasons it is so suitable for summer eating.
A lubina can grow in length to just over a metre, although this is unusual, and can weigh up to eight kilos, which is immense. It belongs to the Serranidae family that also includes the mero (grouper) which Majorcans adore.
The lubina is caught off every part of the Spanish coastline, the biggest ones being found in Cantábria and Finisterre. Those from the Mediterranean and the Bay of Cádiz are smaller. Gourmets prefer those caught in the Mar Menor area.
The word lubina comes from the Latin lupa, which means she-wolf. Like its land-bound namesake, the lubina is suspicious and wary and will only attack its prey when it has superiority of numbers. The lubina is the French loup de mer (seawolf) and one of its Majorcan and Catalán names is llop, which means wolf.
It is also similar to the wolf in that it is territorially jealous. A lubina will pick out an area of the sea as being its home ground and will defend it against all-comers. It has the typical tight narrow mouth of the voracious eater and it is especially fond of small crustaceans including the tiny gamba known as quisquilla.
This shellfish diet helps to account for its exquisite taste. The lubina’s flavour is one of the reasons it is a favourite at up-market restaurants. Another is that the flesh is firm and keeps its shape, thus allowing gourmet cooks to use it in a wide variety of recipes. It also accepts fine delicate sauces.
Much of what I have written until now is mainly of academic interest because the lubina at the market has never been swimming in the sea, either in packs or as a lone wolf. Like the dorada and many other fish, the lubina is now mainly farmed and it has all the advantages and disadvantages of farmed fish.
Farmed lubina are usually of a uniform size, which suits housewives and restaurant cooks, and we can now have it all year round whereas the wild ones used to disappear from May to August, the breeding season.
The purists and discerning gourmets say the flesh of farmed fish is never as delicious as those that swim in the wild and they are right. But what we lose in taste we gain in so many other ways, including availability and low prices. Those splendid samples I saw at Mercadona the other day were priced at €6.95 a kilo.
But the most important thing is that even farmed lubina, if cooked properly, is a very fine fish. And as it can be poached, steamed, grilled, barbecued, fried or baked, we have lots of ways of getting it right.
A sure-fire way of doing it to your satisfaction is the a la espalda method already described for dorada, complete with the refrito.
Although I am always very much in favour of cooking fish by the simplest of possible methods, lubina can be enhanced with delicate sauces and it can even take on some robust flavours. These include green peppercorns as well as the juice of bitter Seville oranges.