Bite: O sole mio


It’s Fish of the Year in Flanders, so here’s a simple recipe for cooking sole

Alan Hope on Flemish food and drink

It’s a well-known fact in culinary circles that we’re not a very adventurous lot in Flanders when it comes to eating fish. We have certain favourite varieties we like to stick to, but unlike the Spanish, for example, we tend not to go for anything that’s too bony, spiny, chewy or, frankly, just too ugly.

Still, it’s a surprise to find that the new Fish of the Year, just announced by the Flemish agricultural and fisheries marketing agency Vlam, is only coming around for a second run after 23 years. That fish is sole, called zeetong in Dutch (from the shape of the fish, which some over-imaginative fisherman must have once thought resembled a tongue).

In economic terms, it’s Flanders’ most important fish. After plaice (last year’s Fish of the Year), it’s the one landed at Flemish ports in the largest quantities (2,492 tonnes last year). However because of the price difference, sole is the most valuable catch, worth €23.5 million last year, or 42% of total fish value. Flemish boats fish for sole in the North Sea, the English Channel, the Irish Sea, the Bay of Biscay and the Celtic Sea.

Sole fishing in Flanders is, according to the research institute ILVO, a model of how sustainable fishing should be done, with measures to avoid catching unwanted species, to limit fuel consumption and to protect the sea bottom. Stocks in all areas, with the exception of the Irish Sea, are in good condition. 

Classic dish

Sole is a flat fish that lives in the sand on the sea floor, and if you’re looking for a crazy fact, how about this: The baby sole is born like other fish with an eye on each side of its head, but both eyes migrate to one side when the fish is about 1cm long; the adult fish can measure 70cm. 

In the kitchen, it’s remarkably easy to get right. Dryness is the biggest problem, caused by cooking for too long. Bite tip: Get the fishmonger to skin the fish and cut off the head if you don’t want to do it yourself. Cut off the fringe of bones around the edge with a pair of scissors. Leave the flesh on the bones: This will help prevent it drying out.

The classic sole meunière requires only a fine dusting of seasoned flour. Then simply pan-fry in hot butter (which should be bubbling and turning hazelnut brown but not burning). Cook on one side for two to three minutes while spooning butter over the fish, then turn over and repeat, cooking for one to two minutes. Serve with a lemon wedge.

If you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, Michael Vrijmoed, the former sous-chef to Peter Goossens at Hof Van Cleve and now chef of Vrijmoed in Ghent, has put together some recipes, which you can download (in Dutch) here.

Photo courtesy Vlam