Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Parma wrapped seabass, and memories of Andalucia (good and bad...)

After a recent catering job I found myself in possession of a large quantity of tatty, fatty scraps of parma ham, that had simply not been presentable enough for a lunch platter I would have felt right about charging for.  Messy they may have looked, and extremely fiddly they may have been to separate one scrap from another, but tasty they most definitely were: ragged little ribbons of sweet melty fat and soft pink meat.  They were never going to look pretty on a plate, but they were ideal for stirring through pasta, or for wrapping around some fish – maybe a monkfish’s tail, or a whole trout.

Looking down at Trevelez, and up at the snowy peaks
 of the Sierra Nevada
Trout wrapped in ham is a classic, in Spain and elsewhere.  It’s a particular speciality of Trevelez, a village high in the Andalucian Alpujarras (the highest settlement in mainland Spain, apparently) that Becca and I visited in Spring last year.  Trevelez existed originally solely for the purpose of curing hams in its dry mountain air, now of course it exists also for selling not just ham, but a great deal of ham related tat to the tourists attracted by the ham.  It is a town composed almost entirely of secaderos, the sheds in which the pigs legs are hung to dry cure, most of which have restaurants attached to them now, many of which have their own trout tanks, fed by the crystalline mountain streams fed by the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada.  These are not restaurants where you spend a great deal of time hmming and hahhing over the menu.  A plate of jamon de Trevelez to start and la trucha to follow, por favor.  The ham, and the trout, were, needless to say almost murderously good.  Well worth the trip, let alone the bill, which was meager even at what were presumably tourist prices.  It was basic cooking though - the patatas pobres that came with the trout appeared to be a working model of a proposal for the disposal of the EU olive oil lake, although tasty nonetheless.  Which was more than could be said for the local wine, which I would strongly advise against, should you ever visit Trevelez, which I would otherwise wholeheartedly recommend.  We should have taken heed of the warning of our waiter who looked frankly skeptical when we asked for a carafe of it to go with our meal, and explained as best he could -given that he spoke no English (the vast majority of the tourists coming to Trevelez appeared to be Germans) and our Spanish is embarrassingly close to non existent (particularly shameful in my case given how much I love their food…) – that the local wine was neither red, nor white, to which we replied, more or less, “Si, es rosado, no?”  To which he gave a non committal shrug and a look which said “if you insist,” before heading off looking far from convinced.  When he returned and placed an earthenware jug on the table, it became apparent that when he said its contents would be neither red wine nor white wine, what he’d actually meant was that it wouldn’t exactly be wine at all.  The contents of the jug being a completely opaque pinkish brown liquid.  With a liberal sprinkling of dead flies floating on its surface.  At least he took it back without a quibble, or even a moment’s hesitation, just a shrug and a look, which while basically identical to those he’d given us earlier were now clearly intended as “I told you so”.

That’s a digression, I was telling you about my scrappy bits of ham, that came from Waitrose, and my intention to wrap them round a couple of trout for dinner for me and Becca at home.  Except by the time I got up to my regular fishmonger, where the trout (farmed in Norfolk) is normally plump, bright eyed and plentiful (and often the fallback choice), they had none.  Just as was the case with mackerel one time I told you about before, which is unfair to my fishmonger, and gives quite the wrong impression that they never have what I want, which is not the case at all, it just weirdly happens to be the times I end up writing it up.  Actually, a fishmonger who never runs out of anything is to be viewed with suspicion, so perhaps it’s to The Fishery’s credit that (very) occasionally they don’t even have staples like mackerel or trout on their slab.  I like to think so, and to be fair, I had left it late in the day.  Anyway, as on the previously blogged occasion, I returned home with a couple of seabass.

I started by marinating the fish in a herb and olive oil rub, which is entirely optional and something I probably wouldn’t have done with trout (the fish itself being that much oiler).  I used my pestle and mortar to crush together peppercorns, sea salt, parsley and a little sage which I then incorporated into a runny paste with olive oil and rubbed over the slashed flanks of the fish and into their cavities, which I also lined with slices of lemon.  Then I wrapped the fish in the slices of ham, tucking it into the cavity as best I could.  Some recipes suggest pinning the ham and the fish together with cocktail sticks, but that always seems unnecessarily fiddly to me, and the fattier (i.e. better) your strips of ham, the less necessary it seems.

Then it was simply a case of frying the fish in a good hot pan for about 3 minutes on the first side and a couple on the second, then popping the pan into the oven at about 180 for just about 10 minutes to finish off.  Dead simple, served with sautéed potatoes and a salad on the side.  And I have to say the sea bass worked just as well, as the trout, although distinctly different.  The saltiness of the ham, and the way it sealed the flesh of the fish created an effect really quite similar to that classic way of cooking sea bass, baking it in a crust of salt.

And if you can’t lay your hands on a jug of opaque, brown wine, with flies, then don’t worry, a glass of something crisp and fresh and white would go just as well, or even better.  Or, I might suggest, a bone dry sherry, a pale fino, or perhaps best of all a manzanilla with its hint of a sea-salty tang

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