For Majorcan families who fish from their own boats, September 1 is the big day of the year because that’s when they can start going out for raors — the island’s most protected and most expensive fish.
The season started on Tuesday of last week and most of the hundreds of amateur fishermen who started off at dawn had a good catch — raors that were longer and plumper than last year.
The raor, the dearest and most highly appreciated fish caught in Majorcan waters, is called cleaver wrasse in English. Fishing for it is easy enough but it takes a great deal of patience.
A fisherman stops his boat but doesn’t drop anchor. As the boat drifts, his hooked lines with live gamba bait slowly drag along the sandy seabed and the fisherman waits or a bite — or, hopefully, several. As it’s a slow hit-and-miss affair most professional fishing boats don’t go after the raor — it’s mainly amateurs with family and friends aboard.
The raor, with a skin that has all the colours of the rainbow, is not only the prettiest fish at the market but is also astronomically expensive. Until a few years ago its starting price was usually at over €90 a kilo. But recent economic crisis put an end to that and the price plunged to around €55 — which is still a lot of money. However, last week the first raors were back to their sky-high prices: the first ones I saw on the slab were going for €85 — and they weren’t especially large. But over the next week or so more raors will be on the slabs and that should bring down the price. With the current financial situation (and with a looming recession because of the virus) there won’t be many people willing to spend €85 for a kilo of raors.
The raor fever that hits Majorca at this time of year isn’t repeated in other parts of the country. Those caught in Catalán waters, for instance, are not considered to be a must-have delicacy and the price is much lower.
There was no official raor season in Majorca until the year 2000: people fished for them in August and continued to do so until the raors buried themselves in the sandy seabeds to hibernate for the winter.
But with the raors becoming scarcer and decreasing in size each year because they didn’t have time to grow, the local government in 2009 declared an official season starting on September 1 and ending on March 31.
The other restrictions included a maximum catch of 50 raors per licence and per day. This means that if a boat owner with a licence goes out with his wife and two children, all of them can fish for raors but their total catch cannot exceed the 50 limit.
If someone else on the boat also has a licence, that person(with the help of the others) can also fish for his (or her) 50 raors quota.
There is also an additional safeguard of the five-kilo maximum. As the season progresses the raors increase in size — and 50 of them would weigh a good deal more than five kilos. That is when the five-kilo limit is applied.
Another important rule that gives the raors extra protection is that no one can fish from dusk to dawn. That is when the raors come out of the sandy seabed to feed — a moment when they would be easy prey for the fishermen’s gamba-bated lines.
The local government is serious about protecting the raor and for once it actually applies the law. Extra inspectors are on duty at popular fishing spots and anyone caught fishing out of season, or breaking the nightfall to dawn curfew, can be fined from €600 to €3,000.
The fixed season and other restrictions were partly to allow the raors extra time in which to spawn and also to put on weight. The raors’ spawning season now runs from May 1 to September 1 and reaches its peak at the end of July.
The raors’ size has increased in recent years with the average length being around 15 cms. However, in 1952 the average length was 17 cms, so there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Raors always live on sandy seabeds where they bury themselves, with only their eyes showing, so they can hide from their daytime predators. They don’t come out until nightfall, which is when they begin to feed. Their favourite food is little gambas, one of the reasons why its flesh is so soft, sweet and succulent.
That is why fishermen who want to lure the raor out of its daytime hideaway put tiny live gambas on their hooks. However, by the time fishermen start at dawn, the raors are tucked in under the sand having fed all night long. Only the gluttons, or those who didn’t eat enough during the night, are tempted out of their sandy beds.
The raor’s flesh is silky smooth, has an exquisite taste and is at its best when simply fried. That is true of all fine fish but particularly the raor: you don’t want anything to come between its delicate flesh and your palate.
Some Majorcan cooks coat them with flour before frying and others also dip the floured fish in beaten egg. The best raors I have tasted were simply fried as they come — without even being descaled. In the hot oil the scales become crisp and and form barrier that protects the flesh from the fierce heat of the oil. The skin is scraped off before you tackle the scrummy moist flesh.
Either way, the fish should always be fried in enough oil to allow it to float, just under 3 cms. The oil must be very hot and the raors should never be overcooked.
They must go from the frying pan to the table, and to enjoy them at their best it is essential to eat them as hot as possible.
Large adult raors, those caught at the end of the season and reaching up to 30 cms in length, are sometimes done in the oven. The fish is placed in an oven dish, drizzled with virgen extra olive oil and a goodish white wine and sprinkled with a small amount of local herbs of your choice. It is baked in a hot oven (200C) for a short time and it is essential it isn’t overcooked.
I have come across only one sauce for this fish and although it is a simple one I’d never use it on raors. It could, however, be used for other white fish fried in olive oil. Put four egg yolks into a conical sieve and as soon as the fish is cooked, put it aside and pour the very hot contents of the frying pan over the egg yolks. Using a pestle, quickly force the egg yolks and the frying pan contents through the sieve.
It’s extremely simple but I think it is a bit of a sacrilege to douse raors with this or any other kind of sauce. They don’t need it.