Sea bream cooked in a salt crust is a great way to prepare this lovely fish that is used all around the Mediterranean, including Spain, France and Italy. I had tried to make this once many years ago, but it got too salty. A few weeks ago I was telling my Italian friend about this experience while the waiter at the restaurant in Luguria where we were having dinner was filleting the orata al sale. He had overheard our conversation and said that I should try it again because it is very easy if you leave the scales on, dry the fish carefully, and only spray a small amount of water on the salt. So that’s what I did, and it worked! This is another fine example of how easy and delicious simple Italian food can be, as long as you make sure that you use the freshest fish you can find!
For 2 servings
1 sea bream, cleaned but with head and scales (450-600 grams, 1 – 1 1/3 pound)
1 kg (2.2 lbs) coarse salt
1 clove garlic (peeled)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 slices lemon
very good extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 200C/390F.
Ask your fishmonger to clean the sea bream, but let him leave the head on and make sure the scales stay on. The gills should be removed, because they give off a bitter taste. Leaving the scales on helps to keep the salt out. Dry the sea bream thoroughly with paper towels, inside and out.
Put the garlic, rosemary, bay leaf and 1 lemon slice into the belly of the sea bream. Cut off the side fins. I also cut off the tail to make it fit into the baking dish.
Take a baking dish into which the sea bream fits nicely. Cover the bottom with coarse salt and put the sea bream on the layer of salt.
Cover the sea bream with salt. Spray with water just a bit. Bake in the oven at 200C/390F for about 30 minutes. (If the fish turns out to dry or undercooked, adjust the time for a fish of the same weight the next time you make this. For the weight indicated, this should be about right, although with this preparation it is not critical to a few minutes.)
Remove the salt from the top with a spoon.
It may be easier to transfer the fish to a cutting board. Remove the skin. You can now easily take off the fillets for the first serving. Remove the bones and the head. You can now easily take out the fillets for the second serving and just leave the skin. Be careful not to get too much salt on the fish.
Serve on warm plates with a slice of lemon, drizzled with a bit of very good extra virgin olive oil.
At La Mola they served this with some simple boiled potatoes as contorno.
This is good with many medium-bodied unoaked Italian white wines. A Pigato or Vermentino from Liguria would be great, as would a Gavi or Soave.