Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wolf of the Sea

Loup de Mer is French for “wolf of the sea”. It’s a perfect title for a predatory fish that feeds at any time day or night. Loup de Mer hunt small fish, shrimp, and crab, and its avid search for food leads it through a wide range of habitat including lagoons, estuaries and the open ocean. Loup de Mer is a species of sea bass and can grow up to three feet long, reaching a top weight of about twenty-five pounds.

Over the past few years, Loup de Mer has become a very popular item in upscale restaurants. It is an absolutely delicious fish that is moderately firm with a subtle but slightly sweet flavor. It is fantastic when cooked on the bone. Served raw it makes top-notch sashimi.

Though something of a novelty here in the United States, Loup de Mer has been enjoyed by cultures across the Mediterranean for centuries. In Turkey it is a familiar sight on the table, known there as “Levrek”. It is called “Lavraki” in Greece, “Branzino” in Italy, and “Lubina” in Spanish. It is only recently, however, that sustainable fisheries have made the Loup de Mer easily and readily available.

The ancient Romans were die-hard aficionados of this tasty sea bass. The poet Martial, when musing on all the great luxuries of life, included Loup de Mer in a list alongside perfumes, jewels, and silks.

This unique fish can actually take credit for some of the earliest known examples of aquaculture in human history. Both Loup de Mer and eels were so highly valued by the ancient Romans that aristocrats spent tremendous amounts of money building “piscinae” or fish ponds. The technology of these early tanks and ponds soon advanced to the point where they contained controls regulating both the flow of water and its salinity. Roman fish farmers were able to induce Loup de Mer to spawn in captivity, thus producing successive generations of this highly valued fish and allowing Romans to enjoy the delicacy year round.

Like just about everything else with the Romans, these fish farms were eventually taken to ostentatious and outrageous extremes. The aristocracy spent vast fortunes constructing tanks and pools. Aquaculture became a status symbol. Grand pavilions were built from which to view the fish farms. Some came to regard their fish as pets. For some reasons the Romans seemed to have identified on a personal level with their eels more than with their Loup de Mer. The mother of one emperor is reported to have a pet lamprey on which she hung golden earrings. Another is said to have declared a period of mourning when one of his prize eels turned up dead in the pool.

Although they didn’t bond with their sea bass the way they did with their eels, Romans still valued their Loup de Mer very highly. At banquets, guests used to discuss slight variations in the flavor of their Loup de Mer, the way we do with wines today. Loup de Mer was celebrated with elaborate depictions in mosaics. Preserved bones of the fish have even turned up in sites like Pompeii.

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