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Recipe: Whole sea bream cooked in parcels with lemon, thyme and olives

Posted on 03 Apr 2024

Treat yourself to a taste of la dolce vita with this sea bream recipe from ‘Italian Coastal’ by Amber Guinness.

Pesce in cartoccio (fish baked in baking parchment parcels) is cooked all along the Tyrrhenian coast in a variety of ways. It’s so satisfying as you can prepare a whole meal within the parcels by placing your side dish at the base and popping the fillets on top, and because the fish is steamed inside the baking parchment the result is deliciously succulent. It also minimises washing up, which I am always a fan of. This recipe features a combination of southern Italian ingredients I particularly love (olives, thyme, chilli and lemon), but once you have mastered the basic method, feel free to experiment with your own flavours and accompaniments.

PREPARATION: 30 minutes, plus standing time
COOKING: 50 minutes

Serves 4


  • 300 g (10 ½ oz) good-quality black olives (I like Italian Leccino or Greek Kalamata), pitted and finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • a few thyme sprigs, leaves picked
  • ½ long red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (or a pinch of chilli flakes)
  • 2 lemons, zest grated, then sliced into thin discs
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 100 ml (3½ fl oz) olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground
  • black pepper
  • 1.2 kg (2 lb 10 oz) new potatoes, peeled and sliced into quarters if small, or 4 cm (1 ½ inch) chunks if large
  • 2 whole sea bream (about 550 g/1 lb 3 oz each), gutted and scaled
  • 150 ml (5 fl oz) dry white wine


1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) fan-forced.

2. In a bowl, mix together the olives, garlic, thyme, chilli, lemon zest and juice, half the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Set aside while you prepare the potatoes and fish parcels.

3. Place the potatoes in a roasting tin large enough to fit the pieces in a single layer, and toss with the remaining olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt. Roast in the oven for 10 minutes while you prepare the fish parcels.

4. Rinse the sea bream under cold running water inside and out, then pat dry with a clean tea towel. If the fish still has its fins, remove these with scissors or a sharp knife at the root.

5. Cut two pieces of baking parchment and foil large enough to wrap and seal around the fish. Place the foil pieces on a bench and top with the baking parchment, then put one fish in the middle of each and season inside and out with salt and pepper.

6. Lift the foil and parchment up around the fish slightly and spoon some of the olive mixture into each cavity, along with two slices of lemon, then spoon the rest of the olive mix on top. Finish off with two more lemon slices. Pour equal amounts of wine over each fish, then seal the baking parchment tightly by pinching the ends together and twisting over. Repeat with the foil to make sure no steam escapes.

7. Take the potatoes out of the oven, place the parcels on top and bake for 40 minutes. (If you don’t have a roasting tin large enough, divide the potatoes between two and perch a parcel on top of each.) Remove from the oven, take off the parcels and transfer to a chopping board to rest for 10 minutes. Toss the potatoes and return to the oven to crisp up while the fish rests. When they are ready, transfer to a serving dish. Carefully unwrap the fish parcels, taking care to reserve the cooking liquid. Fillet the fish and serve with the potatoes, plenty of the olive mixture and the cooking liquid.

To discover more, pick up a copy of Italian Coastal.