Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Appreciating Normandy, and authentic sea bass on a grill

We have just spent a week in the countryside in Normandy (the southern part, near Caen), cooking, eating lots of good yogurt, strong cheese, gorgeous cream and sweet apples, seeing lots of farm animals, and enjoying the life of a small provincial town with our friends. I have felt a bit guilty not posting more often here this week, but my only excuse - with a flat apology - is that we were just too busy living and enjoying, I couldn’t keep up! I will be sharing several recipes and images from our stay in the coming weeks, including a kids' recipe for a trifle made with a delicious spice cookie French kids adore, among a couple of others.

But for now, let’s talk about fish.

On a Friday morning, we pull up to the small harbor of Courceulles-Sur-Mer full of small fishing boats. Right there on the dock, a few stands with fish from the morning catch. One fishmonger shows fresh mackerels to an old couple looking for what to make for lunch, another empties and scales a sea bass. Gurnards, weevers, mussels, turbots, John Dory… Pablo observes, pba-pba-bpa: poisson in Pablo language. One of the fishmongers lets him touch a crab, he’s brave enough to do it for a split second. An old fisherman that looks so much the part that I am too intimidated to take his picture, gives advice to a young salesgirl about treating a weever bite. This guy is the old man and the sea. Pablo waves at him, he stares down at the kid, gruff. I love it.


There’s nothing like buying fish from the fisherman who caught it just a few hours before. I really miss that in LA, as it’s nearly impossible there. Being on the coast of Normandy, I was reminded how much French families eat local and eat seasonal. The fishing industry seems pretty heavily regulated in France. For example, scallops and some varieties of shrimp may only be fished commercially during a given period (I sadly missed the scallop season…)

Another thing you cannot do in France, is sell a fish and say it’s another. In the States, the famous and very expensive Chilean sea bass is in fact an impostor. It is neither from Chili nor a bass. It is actually a Patagonian toothfish, marketed as Chilean Sea bass (because, I assume, it is a sexier, more exotic name??) I have never understood the craze for the toothfish (I shall call it here by its proper name), I find it bland and overpriced. So my next mission will be to find REAL sea bass in LA, as the one we tasted in Normandy was simply delightful. A very delicate white flesh, perfect for children too with a tangy marinade.

Here, the fishmonger even goes as far as to tell you how the sea bass was fished. For a few Euros more per kilo, you get the sea bass that’s wild caught on a fishing line - the bar de ligne (vs. bass caught with a trawl net) – yes, I learned a bit about fishing on this trip J ! But I have to say I really enjoyed knowing exactly where the fish I feed my son (and myself), comes from and how it was caught. And I think a lot of French families demand this type of information from their food providers.
I’m also warming up to the idea of cooking a whole fish. I haven’t done a lot of that, buying mostly fillets. It is a little more work, filleting the fish and insuring there are no bones (nothing will make a child hate fish more than fish bones, so the stakes are high!), but it is so fresh, delicious and healthy (and fun too), it’s worth it. I figured it has a few advantages over the fillets: it is more economical, you get a chance to see the actual fish you’re eating and you can gauge its freshness by the eyes and the color. It is also most likely fresher and will have more nutrients (and taste better). In truth, this recipe wasn’t much more difficult than putting together a quick marinade and throwing steaks on a barbecue.
That night, our host Jean-Max brings out his “Weber bible of barbecue”, and we laugh at the fact that we are going to make sea bass “Moroccan style”, caught no more that 10 miles away, in Normandy, following a very American recipe book.


His little Webber barbecue is set in their ever so bucolic garden, with visiting cats and neighbor horses. It is a warm evening, a real treat in rainy Normandy.
So we eat outside, talking about fish, and how good the butter is, and what farm we’re going to visit on Sunday, and why the French cheese Livarot is called “Le Colonel” (five red stripes around the cheese). The children are very proud of their region, and they know about good food. May my child know cheeses and fish recipes as these do. In the meantime, Pablo gobbles the fish up almost as gluttonously as the fresh baguettes he has become quite fond of here.  


So here’s to bountiful Normandy. I grew up here. I left. And I came back to truly experience it, and love it, for the first time.

Grilled REAL sea bass Moroccan-style

Adapted from “La Bible Weber du Barbecue” de J. Purviance (a translation of “Weber’s Way to grill – the step by step guide to expert grilling”)

Age for babies: 8-12 months because of the spices.

Note: You could probably use this recipe for any whole medium size fish. Worth experimenting!

2 whole sea bass, emptied but not scaled (so it's easier to take off the bbq)
5 1/2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Half bunch parsley
Half bunch of cilantro
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground pepper
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Prepare the marinade mixing all the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside 5 or 6 tbsp to serve with the fish.

Make 3 or 4 incisions, a couple of inches deep, on each flank of the fish.

Place the fish in a large dish, brush it with the marinade (inside and out). Cover with plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge for 2 or 3 hours, as well as the marinade set aside.

Preheat the barbecue or grill on medium high heat.

Bring the fish out of the fridge, drizzle with olive oil, and cook 10 to 12 minutes, at medium high heat, lid closed, until the flesh is opaque yet juicy near the central bone (test using knife). Turn them over carefully once, half way through.  

Transfer the cooked fish to a dish and drizzle with the reserved marinade. Fillet the fish to serve.

We served it with an authentic Greek salad. Wonderful.

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  1. HAHHH! I love this article about Normandy, Helene you are truly transmitting the LOVE and appreciation of food, good job, please continue.

  2. I love seeing a bustling fish market (as you probably can tell from my own blog post hah) and this oen looks fab. the colours esp, look stunning, n that warm glow of the sun which you've captured really well! it's so lovely being back where you were born isn't it. Enjoy every moment of it x

    1. I loved your photos of the Singapour fish market as well! I just love fish markets and could spend hours there... Going around the world from fish market to fish market, wouldn't that be fabulous? It's neat how we're both expats going home and revisiting our own cuisine, on both sides of the globe...


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