That old saying about the nearer the bone the sweeter the meat, is one of those exact pieces of culinary wisdom based on observation and later confirmed by scientists. The meat nearest the bone (think of chicken wings, spareribs or lamb shanks) benefits by absorbing flavours and lubrication from the bones.
When we use that saying, we are almost always talking about beef, lamb, pork or poultry. Most of us are inclined to forget that it is also true of fish. Perhaps ‘forget’ is the wrong word: too many people do not know that fish on the bone tastes better — for the simple reason they have never had it that way. Mothers are rightly wary of giving their children fish with bones in it, which is why some children grow up thinking there’s something suspicious about fish and that they should avoid it.
Many of these children go through life refusing to eat fish: the phobias we learn in childhood usually stay with us for the rest of our days. A minority of these children will, at best, eat fish if there are no bones involved: that means fillets sans skin, sans bones and, very often, sans flavour.
What we should be learning to do (and passing this knowledge on to our children) is to cook and eat fish with the backbone in place, because that’s the one that adds taste and helps to keep the flesh moist.
A popular Spanish dish is a whole fish cooked ‘a la espalda’. This entails butterflying a fish such as bream and chargrilling it or doing it on a hot plate. It is then doused with olive oil in which sliced garlic and snippets of hot chillis were fried.
It’s a superb way of doing fish because the final anointment with the garlic and chilli flavoured olive oil adds taste and lubrication. But connoisseurs of fish cookery have a better variation on doing butterflied fish. They gut the fish but don’t butterfly it. They then chargrill it until they think it is cooked to their liking.
The cooked fish is then butterflied, the back bone is removed and the surface is drizzled with the oil and its flavouring ingredients. This method produces a much finer dish. The fish tastes better because it has been enclosed round the bone and has absorbed the flavour and moisture it exudes. The flesh has a succulence that is missing when the butterflied fish is cooked.
Fillets of fish, no matter how skilfully handled, no matter how interesting the recipe, no matter which variety of fish, never taste as good as when fried or grilled on the bone.
If the filleting of fish is a bone of contention before it is cooked, it is even more so when the fish comes to the table with the backbone in place. I recently ordered a whole lubina (sea bass) on the bone and when the waitress put it on the table she immediately reached for a serving knife and fork.
I fortunately realised what she was about to do and stopped her before she could get to work on the lubina with knife and fork. She was pleased we wanted unfilleted fish because it meant less painstaking work for her.
She explained she was under strict orders always to fillet whole fish for the customers. That’s because many people simply cannot cope with fish on the bone. Most of them would never order a baked fish because they would be scared of tackling it with the backbone in place. They miss out on some of the best dishes in fish cuisine.
They would never order sole à la meunière (one of the great fishes dishes) because it is fried on the bone and they feel that coping with the bone would, at best, be embarrassing.
Fish bones, and even those in chicken and other poultry, arouse the insecurity that lies dormant in many of us. But sole (lenguado, in Spanish) plaice (solla), flounder (platija) and other flat fish are the easiest of all to eat when cooked on the bone.
As with all filleting, or removal of bones, it’s a case of understanding the anatomy of the fish (or the meat) and extracting the flesh as near to the bone as possible. In the case of flat fish, use the backbone as your guide and you’ll never go wrong.
Practise on a sole or other smallish flatfish coated in flour and fried in butter. By running the knife along the backbone, the fillet separates at a stroke. It is eaten before taking on the other one, which comes away from the bone with even greater ease than before.
Now comes the bit that so many people dread: getting at the fillets on the underside. Turning the fish over is not only ungainly, it is unnecessary. Unlike meat or poultry bones, those in fish are easily broken.
So when the two fillets have been eaten, the backbone is snapped with knife and fork at the head and tail end. It can then be lifted out and pushed to one side or transferred to a side plate. The latter is more elegant.
This way of coping with the backbone on cooked fish could hardly be easier, especially if done in a calm and positive way. Having to deal with the backbone in some of the finest fish dishes should never stop us from ordering them.
If you must have fillets of sole, then by all means do so. But remember that at the fish market and restaurants, there is a chance the fillets will be from a flatfish other than sole — and always an inferior one. In a restaurant there is little you can do to avoid this, but at the fish market you can ensure authenticity by never buying pre-filleted flatfish. Always pick a whole sole and get the fishmonger to skin an fillet it. And be sure to ask the fishmonger to wrap up the head, skin and bones to make a fumet if the recipe calls for it.
If a sole needs a fumet for making a sauce, it’s more likely based on a French recipe than a Spanish one. Spaniards usually cook flatfish by the simplest of methods, such as frying, grilling or baking. They seldom use sauces.
I prefer the Spanish way of cooking sole, because the elaborate sauces used in French haute cuisine are inclined to mask the subtle flavour of sole: it is often hidden under a complicated sauce and its role becomes one of texture rather than taste. More than most fish, sole benefits from simple plain cooking to preserve its exquisite taste.
The Basques bake flatfish with butter, herbs, wine or cider and breadcrumbs. When they use a sauce for thick fillets such as turbot, it’s a relatively simple one based on fumet, reduced juices, a little wine or cider and perhaps an egg yolk.
Asturias is also famous for its cider and they cook sole in an earthenware dish with butter, shelled clams and langostinos as well as a generous amount of cider which is reduced with the fish and shellfish juices to make a light and tasty sauce.
The Asturians have an unusual way of frying sole: the soak it in milk, coat it lightly with flour and fry it in lard instead of butter or oil.
Valencians cook sole with oranges and the method is easy peasy. The whole sole, cleaned and skinned, are smeared with butter, surrounded by wedges of orange and baked in a hot oven until the fish is done. Before serving, the sole are drizzled with extra butter and sprinkled with finely chopped parsley.
Sole is by far the best of the smaller flatfish and it is always the most expensive: the usual price is just under or over €30 a kilo.
There are two very good reasons why sole is the flat fish everyone wants to eat and, as always in these matters, it depends very much on quality and availability. One reason plaice is always cheaper than sole is that it is so much more abundant. Fishermen catch four times as much plaice as sole, and more plaice are netted than all the other flatfish added together.
The other reason sole is rated the best of the small flatfish concerns quality and flavour: it has a firmer flesh than the other flatfish and it tastes so much better.
I have already referred to sole’s ‘exquisite taste’ and ‘subtle flavour’. Why does it taste so good? Does it eat some delicious creature other fish haven’t discovered? Does its DNA endow it with some special taste the others lack? None of that: its superb flavour can be explained by a mere quirk of chemistry.
The taste of sole we all desire so much (those of us who like fish, that is) depends on a chemical in the flesh which is present in the bodies of most other fish — when they are alive. But it starts to dissipate as soon as the fish are caught. By the time they are on the slab two or three days later, it has gone for good. This is one of the reasons we should eat fish as fresh as possible.
But because of a chemical fluke, this substance in the sole’s flesh doesn’t mature until three days or so after it is dead. When we buy sole at the market, about two or three days after it was netted, the flavour is at its optimum point. That’s why sole tastes so much better than other fish.
It follows, of course, that if a sole were eaten as soon as it was caught, it wouldn’t be as tasty because the essential reaction in the flesh hasn’t had time to take place.
But we should always aim to buy plaice and flounder as fresh as possible and that means being on the lookout for those telltale signs that show they were landed recently. The eyes should be sparklingly bright, the flesh firm to the touch and it should have a pleasant smell.
Any colouring marks on the skin, such as the orange spots on plaice, should be vivid. If the colours look a bit anaemic and on their way out, then it is almost certain the flavour has gone the same way. Sole and plaice are available all year round but they will be at their best in a couple of months’ time.