Ray’s bream may look miserable, but it is succulent with a marvellous flavour

FISH supper? Haddock, whiting, maybe plaice spring to mind. Thoughts of crisp chips and succulent fish flesh steam quietly into mental view, and with luck, not a single bone for the tongue to wheedle out of the melting flakes and winkle out of the mouth.

Whiting, haddock, cod even, but not Ray’s bream, surely, but yes! Fantastic! A recent stray catch from the Keila from Orkney came my way, to examine, and finally taste. Chances like this come rarely, so it was time to alert all the available senses.

Trawled up from somewhere between Fair Isle and Orkney, the Ray’s bream was the second only that I have ever seen.

Now it lay flat on the kitchen table in all its silvery glory. Fish once caught deteriorate very rapidly. Their eyes lose the intense stare, scale colours fade and the tips of fins and tail begin to dry out and curl. The flesh too, if you want to sample it, loses flavour, so we weren’t hanging about.

Fish to our human eyes often wear very specific expressions. Some look gormless, others mean and vengeful. Many wear a permanent look of surprise, a few look rather jolly but Ray’s bream is nothing less than miserable.

A huge, down-turned mouth tilted almost vertical gives the whole fish an air of something half way between boredom and despair, but these moody angles conceal sheer perfection of biotechnological wizardry. Watch.

Hook a fingernail against the small, sharp teeth of the lower jaw and ease it down to allow the mouth to open wide. The whole lower jaw drops suddenly and the mouth gapes so wide that the entire fish becomes a hungry orifice, which, travelling at any speed would scare the daylights out of any small intruder. Let the jaw hinge back again. See how the thin, bone plates slide over each other into place. Mouth now firmly closed.

Lift up the gill flaps and peer down into the plum coloured, filmy filamental layers, where oxygen is filtered out of salt water at each opening and closing motion of the mouth. More intricately assembled bone structure here too. We will have to eat the fish though, before we can see these individually, as they are currently hidden beneath scales and skin.

The tail fin is a superb piece of design, drawn out, deeply forked and very graceful. The pectoral fins, the ones behind the gills, are beautiful too, generously elongated and flexible.

Prise the rays wide and see how far they spread. The dorsal fin rises up in a proud but purely functional crest, falling away either side to a low, flexible bordering ribbon. What really catches the eye most vividly is the colour and pattern of the scales – sheer, polished, silver glory.

Silver from stem to stern, the outlines and sizes of individual scales revealed hidden secrets of movement. Where flexing of the whole body required freedom to move, the scales are larger, but as the focus slides from flanks towards the head, there is more stiffness and the scales gradually seem to shrink; the finest of all lie around the top of the head and the eyes.

Light shimmers and shifts across the whole body as we turn it this way and that. Photographs reveal only a fraction of the detail, but there are real surprises still in store.

Fish have scales, animals have fur, birds have feathers, crabs have shells, but there is a wealth of difference between individual species. My dwarf hamster, still going after well over three years, has very different fur from a horse; owl feathers are vastly different from those of ducks and the Ray’s bream had scales, the like of which I had never seen before. Once the basic examination of the surface was complete, it was time to delve inside; scales first.

A thin knife point was inserted under some of the broader scales in order to begin to skin the fish. Instead of small, silvery, stiff petals of scales peeling and flaking away, a whole sheaf of what looked like bones appeared. More knife work, more bones.

What on earth was going on here? Why would a fish need hundreds, if not thousands of fine, slim bones in an interlinked mesh beneath the skin? Closer investigation was required.

We filled a small glass bowl with water and put a pinch of skin, scales and silvery bones into it. A finger stirred the mess into isolated, floating fragments and the mystery was solved. Each scale was furnished with long, slim, bony spines, protruding from both extremities, leaving a “typical” scale shaped curve projecting from the centre. This curve was all that was visible to the outside eye. The two long ends were hidden beneath the skin.

As we worked some whiskery elements appeared, as if someone had left a few tough glass fibres under the skin by mistake. When pulled, they came out whole, proving to be extremely thin bones, apparently not attached to anything in particular, but just lying there in a small sheaf, their ends buried deeper in the body of the fish.

Gradually the entire fish was worked free from scales, until it lay pale pink, plump and inviting, with a heap of silver spiny scales beside it. A lovely, rich, even flesh, finely textured and with just a grey hint of the silvery covering here and there where the oily lining of the skin had adhered. Time to dig out what remained of the Christmas baking foil – any further attempts at examination would have to be done post-oven-work.

A low oven, a completely sealed fish and an hour or two later we sat down to unwrap the parcel. What a gorgeous, fragrant cloud of steam rose from the opened foil and the fish, lying as rosy as an organic salmon before us.

Salmony was the aroma, but with a strong hint of mackerel too. We tested the flesh with hesitant forks. It was creamy; so finely textured that flakes were invisible. There was more of a fine grain to the fish, almost like a wood grain, sycamore or beech perhaps.

The flavour too was marvellous. The fine bones we had unearthed latterly were found to penetrate spaces between major muscle areas. They lay together in loose bundles and were easily lifted free and laid alongside the plate edge, like a pile of giant lion’s whiskers. There was still no clue as to their function.

The main flesh was formed in four massive slabs, two on each side, running laterally from head to tail. A groove ran between to two slabs on each side, roughly where the lateral line would have been on the outside.

Three of us meant a slab spare for the freezer. We wrapped it up and salted it away safely for a small treat at Christmas, or maybe New Year. Now all that remained was to set about the serious business of transferring the rare and delicious baked Ray’s bream to our own insides, for the ultimate and final examination.

Later on that evening we cleared everything away, but I spent a blissful hour at the table unpicking the intricacies of the remains of the fish. The head came slowly apart like a child’s transformer toy. Cantilevers and hinges, pivot points and grooves lay before me in matching pairs of flattened bone blades. Each one was an unfamiliar but intriguing shape and merited a study to itself, but there is never enough time for such luxuries.

I kept a selection to clean and dry. A few of the whisker bones and the double-spined scales found their way into my collection of wild and natural oddities too, which takes up an increasing amount of space at home. Housed in scores of containers, preferably nice, transparent ones, they are beginning to take over. I’ll have to start doing something about them all soon.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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