Sea breams of the family Sparidae are found and eaten all around the world. The French dorade, the Japanese tai and the famous American porgy all belong to the same family.
They spend most of their time around rocky reefs and mussel beds where prey is abundant. They have small, sharp teeth that they use for crunching up barnacles and other small shellfish that they’re so fond of eating.
Most Sparids are hermaphrodites. It’s thought that black bream display protogynous hermaphroditism. This means they start out females and turn into males as they mature (actually quite common in fish). When breeding, males use their tails to form mounds of gravel into 'nests'. Females will then lay their eggs inside the best nests, much like the sticklebacks of your O-level biology days.
The main fishery for black bream on the south coast is around Brighton, where these fish are targeted in the spring near the gravel beds on which they breed. Here at SoleShare, we’re not fans of targeting spawning aggregations. It’s not the best idea to catch fish when they’re trying to make babies. That said, they end up in our fishermen’s nets throughout the year and they really are a treat.
On occasion, our guys may also net some larger, gilt head bream. These have a small, but obvious gold bar between their eyes. You’ll probably recognise them from you fishmonger’s and supermarket’s slab. Always ask before buying a gilt head. Chances are, it’s been farmed in Greece. Farming carnivorous fish is still a fairly unsustainable practice, with 3 kilos of fish meal (made from ground up wild fish) needed to put on a kilo of weight for most farmed species. Farmed fish also don’t need to exert energy catching their food, so unsurprisingly you get a flabbier, slimier flesh.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall calls the black bream ‘Britain’s most underrated sea fish’. High praise indeed.
We think they’re like a cross between a bass and a mackerel. Firm, dense and fully flavoured with just a hint of oiliness. They retain their moisture when cooked, but don’t go mushy.
Do be careful though, they’re spiny little buggers. It’s well worth trimming off the fins before scaling and gutting these fish- you’ll save your fingers from some nasty jabs.
As with most fish with dorsal spines, you’ll find these run along the length of the body, into the flesh, so watch out when eating them, or simply remove before cooking.
They’re great all rounders, look to Spanish and French recipes, where bream are much more revered than here in Blighty.