A colleague of mine, Michael Howell, chef-owner of Tempest in Wolfville, N.S., was in Toronto two weeks ago for two very different reasons. He was here to compete in a cheese sandwich grill-off, which I am happy to report he won. And the second reason for his visit was to drop off a box containing two fresh European sea bass to the Scaramouche kitchen.
These bass were no ordinary fish. They were the first European sea bass to be sustainably farmed in Canada.
I am always a little skeptical of farmed fish that have been raised on land in a closed container system. From an environmental point of view, this method is clearly the best way to go, but quite often the fish have a mild muddy taste to which I am particularly sensitive.
When I tasted these bass, however, it was obvious they had been raised in extremely clean water and with the utmost care. After cooking, their flesh was beautifully white, delicately moist and sweet, the skins golden and crispy. These are the attributes that have made sea bass the most heavily farmed fish in the Mediterranean - though rarely in a sustainable manner - so it is not a fish we buy at the restaurant.
The two sea bass came from a company called Sustainable Blue, located on the Bay of Fundy just a few kilometres from Michael's restaurant.
The facility is close to the Avon River estuary and is land-based, posing no risk to wild ocean stocks. All organic waste is held on land, to be used later as agricultural fertilizer, and the breeding water is recycled, cleaned and regulated every hour. This kind of meticulous care is evident in the fish they are producing. Those bass Michael delivered were among the finest fish I have eaten.
According to the production director at Sustainable Blue, Dave Roberts, the plant is on schedule to harvest the first fish commercially in early to mid-October. The company is also planning to build a number of these facilities close to major centres such as Toronto and Montreal.
When you cook fish - especially of this quality (when it comes to market, it won't be cheap) - I encourage you to utilize all of it. Have your fishmonger fillet it for you if you are not comfortable doing so yourself. Enjoy the fillets grilled or pan-fried, or whatever your preference, then use the bones, trimmings and head to make a classic fish soup in the Provençal style.
If you are only buying one fish at a time, rinse and freeze the bones until you have enough to make the soup.
Provençal-style fish soup
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 large onions, peeled, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 whole head of garlic, cut in half
Generous pinch of saffron
1/2 cup flour
2 cups canned chopped plum tomatoes, drained (reserve the juice)
3 pounds fish bones, cut into smallish pieces, rinsed under cold running water, drained well
Peel of 1 orange
Heat the oil in a suitable pot
Add the vegetables and saffron, cook until softened. Mix in the flour and continue to cook while stirring for a minute or two.
Add the chopped tomatoes and fish bones. Continue stirring and cooking until fragrant. Add the reserved tomato juice and enough cold water to barely cover the bones.
Cook at a brisk simmer for 40 minutes. Blitz everything with a hand-held blender or in a blender. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
Pour into a clean pan and simmer for 30 minutes with the orange peel. Remove the peel, season with salt and pepper.
Serve piping hot with croutons, grated Gruyère cheese and sauce rouille on the side.
Beppi's wine matches
It's fun to resonate with the southern-France theme here. Good choices include white Côtes du Rhône and white Côtes du Ventoux. These wines are crisp yet tend to deliver substantial flesh to match the texture of the soup. Also excellent would be a rosé from districts of Provence or the southern Rhone, such as Bandol or Tavel.