Sparus aurata is truly a classic fish.
Called by many names — gilt-head bream in English, daurade or dorade royale in French, orata in Italian — the fish that now sits on my kitchen counter can also be found on Roman mosaics like this one from the ancient city of Pompeii, which famously perished in a volcanic eruption in year 79:
Here was a fish prized in French and Italian cuisines and has been a part of Mediterranean culture since at least the Roman times — yet having lived mostly in East Asia and North America, this was my first exposure to it.
I first saw dorade royale for sale a few weeks ago at my local fishmonger, Sunh Fish Company, but it was not until this week that I had a chance to take one home. When I asked, the store staff told me they had been ordering dorade as an experiment to see if there was interest in our local area. They told me the fish came from Cyprus.
A quick jaunt on Google revealed a New York Times article from 1997 on the dorade royale‘s newfound attention from New York City chefs. Other sources online even claimed that dorade royale was sacred to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite (Shaw and Shaw 2000).
My exploration was further helped with a plastic tag attached to the fish by its original distributor — a tag printed with a QR code:
The QR code translated into a link for this video from an aquaculture company, Kimagro, showing thousands of gilt-head breams swimming in giant cage-pens used in farming marine fish out at sea — these ones being in Limassol, Cyprus:
(Oops — looks like embedding disabled by user. Click on this instead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJR1iMqq8a0)
From ancient Roman mosaics to Greek gods to gargantuan aquaculture operations, the little fish in my hands suddenly felt very big.
To honor its Mediterranean heritage, I decided to bake my dorade royale whole, with familiar herbs and spices — rosemary, thyme, garlic, salt and black pepper, and a coat of olive oil.
The result was a revelation. My tongue first met a burst of flavor and texture from the crisp, fatty skin of the dorade, which paired perfectly with the deliciously sweet, juicy white flesh attached. It was wave upon wave of dazzling sensations, all from a single morsel.
Good enough for Greek gods, good enough for me.
Addendum July 2, 2013: My dentist friend was fascinated by the crazy teeth of the dorade, and asked me to take closeup photos of the jaws I preserved. Here are two photos for your shock and delight:
Sparus aurata Linnaeus, 1758
Dorade Royale (click for names in other languages)
FishBase Page: http://www.fishbase.org/summary/Sparus-aurata.html
Addendum: I’ve edited the post to correct that Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, not Roman. Her Roman equivalent is named Venus.
— Ben Young Landis