The Turbot (psetta maxima) is one of the largest flatfish inhabiting our continental shelf.  Most of its life is spent motionless and camouflaged on the shallow sea bed (20 to 50m),  partially covered by sand or gravel, waiting for sprats, gobis, sand eels and small crustaceans to swim by. 

 

The Turbot is not the most handsome of fish – to human eyes.  Its blotched pointillist  skin varies in tone according to its background,  light on sandy background, much darker on gravel. With its eyes both looking upwards, downturned mouth, and bloated body, it resembles a lugubrious drunk lying on a park bench in the early hours of Sunday morning.  The top and bottom of flatfish are its two flanks.  Most flatfish lie with their right side uppermost, but the Turbot is left sided or sinistral – which rather suits its expression. 

 

Sedentary for most of the time but given to bursts of activity to catch its prey,  the Turbot’s delicate white flesh is composed of fast-twitch sprinter’s fibres rather than the darker flesh found in fish such as salmon or tuna, that swim long distance.   

 

Between April and August, Turbot migrate to deeper water to lay millions of eggs.   The survivors develop into ‘normal looking’ round fish, but as they grow and establish themselves on the shallower sandy bottom, the body becomes flat and the right eye migrates round to join the left.  Weird or what?  

 

Unlike the drunk, the Turbot has been held in high regard in Europe for 2000 years.  It is a fish to savour.  Rick Stein regards it as possibly the best tasting fish in the world. The texture is dense and slightly gelatinous, remaining quite moist after cooking. The  flavour is subtle and refined.  Not a cheap option, about £5 a serving from the fishmonger, this is a fish for special occasions.  Stein says it is one of the few fish he would prepare as a main course for a banquet.  He advises cooking on the bone in the form of steaks or troncons cut from good large fish (3-8Kg). 

 

The trick with Turbot is to cook it gently with a few well chosen ingredients that enhance its taste and texture.  Try basting the fish with herbs, and serving with a sauce vierge. 

 

Preheat the oven to 230C.

 

For two people, finely chop about a teaspoon of rosemary, a teaspoon of thyme and a bay leaf, crush half a teaspoon of fennel seeds, a teaspoon of peppercorns and some flakes of sea salt with a pestle and mortar.  Mix together with about 50ml of olive oil in a small roasting tin. Add the troncons and turn them once or twice to coat.  Leave to marinate. 

 

Then prepare the vegetables – new potatoes, green beans and peas.  Put the potatoes on to steam.  

 

For the sauce vierge, mix together about 40 ml of extra virgin olive oil, a tablespoon of lemon juice,  one small plum tomato, skinned, seeded and cut into small dice, 4 black olives, pitted and sliced, two small anchovy fillets in oil, one garlic clove, finely chopped.   Season with sea salt and black pepper.   Put the mix into a small pan ready to warm through just before serving. 

 

Remove the fish and place on small metal frying pan.  Rub any extra herbs into the dark skin with your fingers.  Turn it over and sear this side of the fish on a high heat.  Then put the pan in the oven for 10 minutes. 

 

Add the peas and beans to the steamer.     

 

When the fish is nearly done, warm the sauce vierge and add a heaped teaspoon of finely chopped parsley.    

 

Carefully remove the fish, place in the centre of a warmed plate, drizzle the sauce vierge to one side and put the vegetables on the other side.  

 

Part the flesh and skin with a knife.  It just falls off the bone in pieces. Do not remove the skin.  That’s where the flavours are.  Dip into the sauce.  Bite into the tender flesh and let the flavours wash around your mouth – the mildly aniseed taste of the fennel complements the texture of the fish wonderfully and the lemon and anchovy and parsely really add contrast. 

 

Eat slowly.  Take your time to really sense the texture, let the flavours develop and permeate.  Take a few peas or a portion of waxy buttered potato between each mouthful. Have a sip of a good New Zealand sauvignon blanc, such as Dog Point.  Separate another piece of fish, eat with the sauce.  Taste, relax – think!   

 

Meals like this are like meditation.  They nurture the soul!        

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