When grilling whole fish, size is very important. The Italians do not attempt to grill minuscule red mullet, they deep-fry them. Nor do they cook very large bass or bream by this method, but roast or bake them instead. The ideal size range for grilling is between 300 g and 1 kg. Fish in this range can be cooked through relatively quickly, preventing dry overcooked flesh, yet are big enough to allow the skin to crisp, an important part of their appeal.
The other important component is freshness. The reason the Italians insist on being served whole fish is because they want to see it before cooking to ensure its quality. Paul Minichelli at Le Duc in Paris used to serve a dish of grilled sea bass which he merely gutted, it was not scaled or seasoned, but simply cooked under a salamander or overhead grill. The fish had to be line-caught and was unbelievably fresh, but when it came to the table, with the waiter expertly filleting it for you, it was the very essence of the sea. There was no sauce, no lemon, no oil, no garnish, just the gleaming white meat. Fantastic.
What sort of grill? Good results are very easy to achieve with a domestic overhead grill, providing the whole fish will fit under and can be at least 6 cm away from the flame. More difficult but equally delicious is cooking on a ridged cast-iron grill, and most difficult of all but indubitably the best, is over a barbecue. A useful piece of kit for barbecues are those racks that sandwich the fish allowing you to turn them without actually risking handling the things directly.
Cooking times are hard to give, and practice and judgment are necessary here. Perhaps you should practise on mackerel before you graduate to sea bass or royal sea bream. The methodology is the same, the cost of failure is not! Incidentally, very fresh grilled mackerel is one of the nicest fish to eat.
© 1996 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.