Fish Baked in Salt

This ubiquitous dish is one of the great ones of the Mediterranean, and of southern Spain in particular. But it is invariably totally ruined by being served with a spoonful of those soggy, nasty vegetables described on page 85 and possibly some hard-boiled or, worse still, tinned potatoes. Except in restaurants of the highest integrity, when ordering Pescado a la Sal, insist on having all the vegetables served separately, because the whole purpose of this method of cooking is to preserve the exquisite flavours of perfectly fresh fish. Other cultures have similar cooking methods - the Chinese use clay ovens, Romany gypsies cook hedgehogs in mud, and Polynesians wrap their food in leaves and bake it in the ground. I am sure those of you who remember the Robert Carrier cookery cards rushed out to buy a chicken brick in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The thing about this style of cooking is that the flavours are hermetically sealed inside and not diluted by poaching in water or evaporated in the oven.

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Method

It is important to have a good quantity of coarse rock salt and the fish must be brilliantly fresh. It must be whole, be it a bream or a bass, and it must weigh an absolute minimum of 900 g/2 lb. Gut the fish, then sprinkle a little salt inside with a sprig of parsley, a sprig of thyme and a couple of lemon wedges. Place the fish on a baking tray that has been covered with a layer of rock salt about 1 cm/Β½ inch deep. Then completely cover the fish in a mound of salt and pat it down. Pop it into a very hot oven for about 25 minutes. The salt will form a hard crust, so to check whether the fish is done, plunge a skewer into the fish. Leave it for a moment or two then pull it out; if it is hot, the fish is cooked. Then begins the fun of chipping away the salt. Start around the edges of the fish and try and lift it off in one piece. Then, starting from the tail, try to peel off the skin in one piece. Carefully lift off the fillet, then lift out the backbone and remove the other fillet. Place on serving plates.

All you need now to enjoy this dish are some melted butter, a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice and a little sprinkling of salt and pepper, because the salt that surrounded the fish during cooking will in no way have made it salty. A plate of Jersey new potatoes and a little crisp salad, followed by raspberries and clotted cream, a bottle of Meursault (bugger the tinto verano!) and you’re in heaven.

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