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We drove for 10 minutes to meet our host’s friend at a lay-by on the main road. Then for a further quarter of an hour before turning down towards the coast. We reached a small port but then went through an industrial estate, back up towards the hills, down again through another small port, a marina and a new-build resort, through another industrial estate and, by now in complete darkness, back once more into the hills, before finally descending into a gorge at the bottom of which a long shed jutted out into a wine-dark sea.
Like the Ancient Greeks, the Portuguese take their fish very seriously. To drive for an hour for dinner is of no account. Despite this being a wet Tuesday night in out-of-season Algarve, the place was humming, albeit with the boisterous tones of expatriate English ordering gin and tonics and on obviously familiar terms with the management.
Our guide was a local who had studied in Lisbon with our host and returned to these parts. He, too, was on good terms with the owner, as he and a group of mates lunched there every Friday. He did the ordering. The starters of huge grilled prawns, two kinds of squid, oysters and stuffed mussels were magnificent — but the fish was the prize. Our host had dismissed the presented sea bass and bream in favour of a large and glistening red snapper, not a fish I had held in very great regard. My companions ate with something close to religious fervour and were unimpressed by my sacrilegious use of both lemon and olive oil, which in their opinion marred the flavour of the fish.
Red snapper prefers warmer waters than those around Britain — there is plenty in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico — but I suspect with global warming we will see more of it. I caught this one in Acton Market, whence it had arrived from Spain via Billingsgate. I have been a little less respectful than my friends would have allowed, but it is a robust fish, as recipes from Mexico, Vietnam and other parts will readily testify.
Steamed snapper with fennel and orange salad
Serves four to six
This recipe is good for most round fish, especially bass and bream. The technique of cutting before cooking not only cooks the fish more evenly but makes clean filleting and portioning a good deal easier with a larger fish. Those who know me know I love my steamer: if you don’t have one big enough, place the fish on a trivet on an oven tray, pour a little boiling water in the tray, cover the fish with foil and cook in the oven.
Make sure the fish is well scaled, the guts and gills removed and the interior cavity well rinsed. Make two or three deep incisions (depending on the size of the fish) down each side, one just behind and around the head and one or two across the centre.
- Make the paste by pounding the dry ingredients in a mortar and adding the liquids. Rub the paste deep into each incision in the fish. Season the interior very well with sea salt.
- To make the salad, trim the tops off the fennel and cut the body into very thin rounds (a mandolin is ideal for the purpose). Soak in cold water for 20 minutes. Cut the top and bottom of the oranges and then peel off the skin like staves of a barrel, removing any pith. Cut the oranges into thin slices across their diameter. Just before serving, drain and spin-dry the fennel and chop the little fronds from the fennel tops. Toss them with the slices of orange, some sea salt, milled pepper and the olive oil and sprinkle over the olives and capers.
- Sprinkle the fish with a little sea salt and steam in the top compartment of a steamer for 10 minutes or until a skewer will pass through without resistance. Take the fish to the table and serve, using a couple of tablespoons to lift the flesh off the bone.
We drank the house white, which was clean, light and refreshing but not much more. Fish as meaty and rich as this will benefit from something with more weight but plenty of acidity. The Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon would be ideal.
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