LOUP GRILLÉ AU FENOUIL

Loup grillé au fenouil, translated precisely from the French, means wolf
grilled with fennel. Those familiar with Mediterranean cooking will
recognize, however, that the wolf, the loup, referred to here is loup
de mer
, the wolf of the sea, or sea bass. Sea bass grilled with fennel
is one of the glories of southern French cuisine.


I first encountered it in one of the restaurants facing onto the harbor
of Villefranche, a small town just east of Nice — a restaurant called
Mère Germaine. There are several restaurants just like it facing the
harbor, and loup grillé au fenouil is not prepared better in Mère
Germaine than in any of the others, but Mère Germaine is where I first
had it, and so that must remain the center of my nostalgia for the
dish.

It has certainly never tasted better anywhere else — except perhaps on a
terrace barbecue in Seattle once. A friend living there had discovered
wild fennel growing near him in a vacant lot, and used its seeds to
season the fish, its stalks to fuel the fire beneath, resulting in a
wholly satisfying sensory experience.

Nostalgia is a potent spur to culinary ambition. One day while peeking into
the tiny seafood selection at my local supermarket I noticed a
tempting fillet of Chilean sea bass. I bought it, along with some dried
fennel seeds from the spice racks, and decided to see how close I could
come to recapturing the taste of those long ago nights on the Côte
d’Azur.


I coated a small pan with olive oil, salted and peppered the bottom of
the pan, then covered it with fennel seeds.  I placed the fillet of sea
bass in the pan and made two slits in the fillet. I coated the top of
the fillet with olive oil, salted and peppered it, and covered it with
fennel seeds, filling up the slits with extra seeds.


I set it under the broiler in my oven until the fennel seeds
were brown and thoroughly roasted, at which point the fish was cooked through but still moist.


I ate it with a respectable Chardonnay from the Coppola vineyards, and the
wine was fine, but a drier one would have suited the taste of the fish
better. The taste of the fish was miraculous — light but flavorful —
and the toasted fennel seeds gave a pleasant reminder of the dish as
it’s prepared on the shores of the Mediterranean.


It was not by any means loup grillé au fenouil as you’d encounter it there, cooked on a real charcoal fire, seasoned with fresh fennel. But it was poignantly close.

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