Sea Bream, Orange and Tarragon Sauce, Fennel Chips
Updated: Apr 6
"'Let us build such a church, that those who come after us shall take us for madmen,' said the old canon of Seville, when the great cathedral was planned."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1857)
It's taken me quite a while to get this recipe posted but I think I've got it out there with just a little time to spare. The need for speed has simply been that the orange in this recipe is ideally, at least to my way of thinking, Seville orange, which will more or less be unavailable by the end of the month until its season restarts in December.
The origins of this recipe lie in a book of Gary Rhodes's (RIP) called "Gary Rhodes Cookery Year: Autumn into Winter" and has been, ever since I first saw it in 2002 on the TV series the book accompanies, a recipe that has captivated me, one I've tried several times but, alas, one that has never really worked for me in its original form. Too sour and too fiddly.
As something of a theme developed early this year, among those I follow on Instagram, for combining the flavours of fennel and orange I was drawn to revisit this recipe and give it another go. Though one of Rhodes's ubiquitously imaginative reincarnations of British classics - in this case, the humble fish and chips - it was, in practice, fillets of gilt-head bream poached in an orange-based court bouillon later reduced and enriched with butter to create a sauce and the whole accompanied with “fennel chips”.
As often happens this time of year, wild gilt-head bream put in something of a fleeting appearance and news was coming in that catches were being made in both the Dorset fishery I so closely follow and also in a Suffolk fishery that I follow. Sadly when I say fleeting, I mean fleeting - I was only able to get my hands on some of these superb fish no more than once or twice from the nearby farmers' markets. It's worth making the observation that you don't often find wild gilt-head bream in fishmongers, but I can't remember ever seeing them in a UK supermarket. I was holding out to make this dish again with a wild gilt-head (part of the reason why I delayed posting the recipe) but sadly they weren't persisting with their visit. Thankfully, as the bass went into closed-season in the Dorset fishery, black bream started being targeted and in all truth this dish is just as good with black bream as it is with gilt-head, I might even say it is better. But there again: when did you last see black bream in a supermarket?
So with renewed motivation to champion this recipe, and after several iterations I have arrived at a formula that I find so pleasing that I will be now be making this dish regularly. I switched the regular orange from the original recipe to seasonal Seville for its particularly bittersweet flavour (but regular and blood orange would work too - blood orange would surely give quite a dramatic look to the dish), omitted the lemon juice and sugar, replaced white wine with medium-sweet cider, white wine vinegar with cider vinegar, and swapped the black peppercorns (which I found to muddy the sauce) for ground white pepper (which is what you would find in the chippy anyway!).
The fennel chips, just thin wedges of fennel dipped in a cider batter and deep-fried, are a revelation! If nothing else, make these. They’re unbelievably good and a real eye-opener for a fennel-doubter. They’d go amazingly with a pan-fried or braised pork chop, or a roasted duck breast or leg and both of those would also be quite happy with an orange-based sauce.
I must say, I can't help thinking that Chef Rhodes missed a trick by not using Sevilles for the orange contribution in this recipe. Especially when his book was all about cooking with the seasons and this particular feature was among the winter offerings. But I will, and happily, concede that regular orange works perfectly well, but so too does black bream which has a very broad season of availability. So we arrive at something that can (and hopefully will) be enjoyed through a wide selection of months of the year.
With cider running through both the sauce and batter, I suggest that this dish be served with... a glass of cider.
Having said above how I swapped out the lemon and sugar, it's not a bad idea to have a little caster sugar and either lemon juice or additional vinegar to be able to balance the savoury, sweet and sour flavour of the sauce to your liking. So they are included in the recipe as items to taste. Whilst it's quite an elegant presentational element to the dish, dealing with the shallot "rings" is a layer of fuss that is not essential. From a flavour perspective just using finely diced shallot in the sauce delivers equally well.
Chef Rhodes, in all his books, is clearly particularly wedded to the idea that a protein portion in a meal should be 175g. I have no issues with this and I must say that his assessment that a 600g whole fish will deliver two 175g prepped fillets works reliably.
When it comes to the fennel, the preparation may seem somewhat wasteful, but in fact very good use can be made of the discards. The outer leaves are invaluable in a fish or vegetable stock and can be cleaned, chopped up and frozen ready for when it's time to make stock. For the cooking of the fennel chips it's important for this recipe in its whole to get the oil for deep-frying up to temperature early in the process as the time available for cooking the chips is tight. But do take care not to be too hasty if doing this in a saucepan rather than a safety fryer as deep-frying accidents can be rather upsetting!
Sea Bream, Orange and Tarragon Sauce, Fennel Chips
Ingredients (Serves 2)
2 x 175g bream fillets
80ml juice from approx. 2 Seville or other oranges (see recipe intro)
80ml sweet or medium-sweet cider
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
20g fridge-cold butter, diced, plus a little extra for greasing
30g shallot, sliced and separated into individual rings (or finely diced, see recipe intro)
About 20 picked tarragon leaves
Sea salt and ground white pepper
Caster sugar, a pinch or two to taste (optional)
Lemon juice, or extra vinegar, to taste (optional)
For the fennel chips:
1 or 2 fennel bulbs (depending upon size)
90g self-raising flour, plus extra for coating
150ml sweet or medium-sweet cider
Sunflower or vegetable oil for deep-frying
Preheat the oven to 200°C and the oil for the fennel chips to 180°C. Grease a shallow flameproof casserole, or ovenproof sauté pan, for which you have a lid, with a little butter.
For the batter for the fennel chips, sift the flour into a bowl with a good pinch of salt, then whisk in the cider and transfer to the fridge to chill for a little while.
Remove the thick outer layers and the stalk-like tops from the fennel bulb(s) then cut in half from root to tip. Cut the halves into ¼" wedges, again removing any particularly thick outer layers, season the wedges and set them aside.
Lay the sliced (or diced) shallot in the casserole or sauté pan, season the bream fillets with the salt and white pepper, then lay them flesh side down on top of the shallot. Combine the orange juice, cider, water and cider vinegar, and pour over the fish. Bring the liquid just to the boil so that it is emitting some steam, then cover and put in the preheated oven for 8-10 mins, depending on the thickness of the fish.
As soon as the fish is in the oven retrieve the batter from the fridge and give it another whisk. Dust the fennel wedges with a little more flour then dip in the batter and deep fry, in two batches if necessary, for about 4-5 mins until crisp and golden. Drain the crispy fennel on kitchen paper and as soon as the fish is ready to come out of the oven, turn the oven off and put the prepared fennel in the oven to stay warm in its residual heat.
When the fish comes out of the oven, transfer the fillets with a fish slice to serving plates and keep warm (a cover of foil should suffice). If using shallot rings lift them out of the cooking liquor with a spoon or fork and put on a plate and keep them warm too.
Over a medium-high heat, bring the cooking liquor to the boil, add the olive oil, and reduce by half or until it reaches a sauce-like consistency. Taste and adjust with seasoning, sugar and/or lemon juice or vinegar to achieve a savoury, sweet and sour result. Lower the heat and whisk in the chilled butter a few dice at a time then stir in the tarragon leaves.
If using the shallot rings, spoon these over the fish fillets, then knap the sauce over the fish. Serve with the fennel chips.
"Gary Rhodes Cookery Year: Autumn into Winter", Gary Rhodes (2002), pp. 48: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gary-Rhodes-Cookery-Year-Autumn/dp/0563522836