Dorade Royale (Sparus aurata)

Sparus aurata, the dorade royale, with lamb's quarters and herbs. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

Sparus aurata, the dorade royale, with lamb’s quarters and herbs. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

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:

A mosaic found in House VIII.2.16 in Pompeii, now exhibited at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (No. 120177). The gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata) is at the top right. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A mosaic found in House VIII.2.16 in Pompeii, now exhibited at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (No. 120177). The gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata) is at the top right. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata) depicted in a mosaic from house VIII.2.16 in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Note the characteristic gold-bar on the fish's forehead. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata) depicted in a mosaic from house VIII.2.16 in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Note the characteristic gold-bar on the fish’s forehead. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The crushing, molar-like teeth of Sparus aurata can be seen here. The teeth pattern is common to members of the porgy family (Sparidae), enabling them to crush the shells of molluscs and crustaceans. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

The crushing, molar-like teeth of Sparus aurata can be seen here. The teeth pattern is common to members of the porgy family (Sparidae), enabling them to crush the shells of molluscs and crustaceans. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

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:

A QR code tag shipped with a daurade royale (Sparus aurata). In the background, the unique, molar-like teeth of the dorade can be seen in its mouth -- a trait common in members of the porgy family, Sparidae. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

A QR code tag shipped with a daurade royale (Sparus aurata). In the background, the unique, molar-like teeth of the dorade can be seen in its mouth — a trait common in members of the porgy family, Sparidae. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

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.

Dorade royale (Sparus aurata), with their characteristic

Dorade royale (Sparus aurata), with their characteristic “gilt crowns” across their foreheads, await purchase in a fishmonger’s display case. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

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:

The upper and lower jaws of Sparus aurata, from an anterior view. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

The upper and lower jaws of Sparus aurata, from an anterior view. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

The upper and lower jaws of Sparus aurata. The jaws are positioned beyond their natural extension to showcase the teeth. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

The upper and lower jaws of Sparus aurata. The jaws are positioned beyond their natural extension to showcase the teeth. (Image Credit: Ben Young Landis/CC-BY)

Sparus aurata Linnaeus, 1758
Dorade Royale (click for names in other languages)

Class Actinopterygii (Ray-finned Fishes)
Order Perciformes (Perch-like Fishes)
Family Sparidae (Porgies)

FishBase Page: http://www.fishbase.org/summary/Sparus-aurata.html

Citations

Shaw, JW, MC Shaw. 2000. Kommos: an excavation on the south coast of Crete volume IV: the Greek sanctuary. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1333p.

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

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12 thoughts on “Dorade Royale (Sparus aurata)

  1. A fabulous, interesting, little nugget of food information that’s sure to get me soon hunting down this remarkable looking fish.
    The author’s vivid description of the flavor makes the mouth water!
    Lovely pics!
    Thank you!!!

    • Thank you so much for reading, Nora. Hope you find a dorade to put on your plate soon, to share in the experience!

  2. Very interesting picture of the jaws. I have seen two types of dentition in Sparus aurata , one with progressively larger molars, and one with a large molar isolated. Your specimen presented each morphotype on one side of the mouth. Very curious.

    • Thanks for writing, Antonio. The asymmetry is interesting, isn’t it? I wonder if this is a random pattern, or if it develops out of individual feeding preference, or genetically determined.

  3. Hi Ben, great blog! I was just wondering if you would mind me using some of your pictures? I am conducting some research into gilthead bream and need to make some flyers.

    Thanks
    Jen

    • Hi Jen, thanks for the kind words! Send me an email and tell me more about your research!

      Thanks,
      Ben

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