A bass, I have always thought, is a bass, but these days it is called sea bass — quite redundantly, since freshwater bass are not known in Europe. The bream of the sea, on the other hand, should be distinguished from the freshwater fish of the same name which is related to carp. Instead, it is usually referred to only by its colour — black, red or gilthead; but if it is described simply as ‘sea bream’, which I have seen recently on an expensive London restaurant menu, make sure you know which one you are getting. In North America sea bream is called porgy, a name by which it was presumably also once known in south-west England, judging by this delightful old ballad:
Me father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light,
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night;
From this union there came three —
A porpoise, and a porgy, and the other was me.
Bream is an attractive, stocky little fish — it seldom weighs much more than a pound — with a rather Roman nose. The black variety, which is commonly caught off our coasts, is said to be inferior in flavour to the other two, though Cornishmen would dispute this. The red bream, which has more of an orange-coloured skin and is not to be confused with the inferior redfish (also known as Norway haddock), has a wonderfully firm flesh, but it has to be admitted that, on its own, baked or grilled, it does not have the delicacy of flavour of its gilthead cousin. In view of its texture, it is ideally suited for sashimi, skinned, sliced and eaten raw with a soy sauce mixed with chopped ginger, chives and fresh limes. I have read that the Japanese are very partial to uncooked red bream, but this may be a different fish from the European one.
There are, in fact, several varieties of bream to be found in Mediterranean, and sometimes British, waters, of which the gilthead is probably the best. Overall, it is silvery in appearance; some heads are more gilt than others, but a pale-coloured band should be visible between the eyes. It is the sort of fish that one tends to remember by the place where it was enjoyed on some past summer holiday — in my case at a restaurant overlooking the harbour of an island off the Croatian coast where the fish, caught that morning and grilled over charcoal, was of course as perfect as the surroundings. Dorada à la sal is a popular Spanish dish, when the whole fish is baked in a cake of salt, supposedly to ensure that the fillets do not dry up. This can also be achieved by baking the fish in foil, and putting olive oil and perhaps a little mussel stock into the parcel.
In Spain you will also find bream called besugo and urta, but I’m not sure of the colour of their skins. They seem to benefit from the addition of garlic, green peppers and tomatoes in the cooking. The flavour may also be lifted by making slits along the flanks of the fish before sprinkling over it a mixture of, say, chopped parsley, thyme, shallots, capers, lemon slices and poaching it in white wine.
Bass is bar in France, or loup de mer (sea-wolf), presumably so called because it is a voracious eater of other fish. Like bream, it is often farmed these days. It may be my suspicious nature, but I often wonder, when a fishmonger tells me that his bass are wild, whether and how he can be sure. The surest way is to catch your own in summer, when they come close inshore and into tidal estuaries and can be fished by casting from rocks or beach. When very fresh, bass and bream are best cooked whole (beware of the bass’s viciously spiked dorsal fin) and cooked simply, and both seem to me to go perfectly with sliced fennel softened in butter and water.
If roasting bass in the oven, turn the heat up high and put some fennel and parsley (leaves and stalks) into the pan with lemon juice and olive oil. For those who insist on adding more flavours, it is worth trying ginger, spring onions and coriander leaves — though I would avoid the stronger flavours of chopped chilli and garlic. Pernod is sometimes used in a sauce or mayonnaise with such fish, but I think I shall stick with sorrel, or possibly saffron or — my great favourite among sauces for white fish — beurre blanc.