We cel­e­brate the sweet taste of the Mediter­ranean with these red mul­let recipes

Warmer seas have en­ticed this pretty and sweet-tast­ing fish from the Mediter­ranean into UK wa­ters. Clarissa Hy­man re­veals its colourful story


The ques­tion is, which came first: the fish or the hair­cut? Think Paul McCart­ney, early David Bowie, Billy Ray Cyrus and Rod Ste­wart. Or maybe not. Why was the Seven­ties- and Eight­iesstyle coif­fure – short at the front and sides and long at the back – called a mul­let? Surely it can’t be be­cause it looks like you have a dead fish on your head? If so, it’s an in­sult to a fine fish – which doesn’t even wear flares or shiny track­suits – to con­flate it with a much-ridiculed hair­cut. Still, I sup­pose it sounds bet­ter than hav­ing a hair­style called had­dock.

There are two species of red mul­let found in Euro­pean wa­ters but the one most likely to be sold in Bri­tish fish­mon­gers is the pretty Mul­lus sur­mule­tus, also known as the sur­mul­let. It likes to hang out near rocks and is par­tic­u­larly fond of tiny crus­taceans, which add to its spe­cial sweet flavour. Its skin is an irides­cent mix of orange, red-gold and rose pink, and among its most dis­tinc­tive fea­tures is the nar­row yel­low band that runs the length of its body with a stripe on the first dor­sal fin. Why am I think­ing Rod Ste­wart again?

The Mul­lus bar­ba­tus va­ri­ety, mostly found in the Mediter­ranean, has a real rock’n’roll vibe: the lovely mot­tled skin changes pat­tern at night. The later it is caught, the blotchier it is – a cu­ri­ous but lit­tle-known fact. Its colours also evolve as the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture in­creases. The Ro­mans were par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated by this, though per­haps not al­ways in a com­pas­sion­ate way. One clas­si­cal aes­thete al­legedly slow-boiled a red mul­let in a glass bowl so he could mar­vel at the mirac­u­lous changes in its colour as it died.

In an­cient Rome, they were reared in ponds where they were at­tended to and fussed over by their own­ers, and would be sum­moned at feed­ing time at the sound of the voice or bell of the keeper. Gourmets would pay ex­traor­di­nar­ily high prices for a mul­let and they were some­times sold for their weight in sil­ver. As such, large fish were pre­ferred and re­garded as sta­tus sym­bols or signs of af­flu­ence, con­firmed by Ro­man poet Mar­tial, who wrote: ‘Do not dis­hon­our your gold serv­ing-dish by a small mul­let: none less than two pounds is wor­thy of it.’ So very Rod Ste­wart.

There are two warm-wa­ter species of mul­let that are some­times sold as red mul­let: the West African goat­fish, found along the At­lantic coast from Morocco to An­gola, and the yel­lowfin goat­fish from the In­dian Ocean, but nei­ther ri­val the Euro­peans for taste or looks. Sadly, the Mediter­ranean red mul­let is much re­duced in num­bers as it has been sub­ject to high fish­ing pres­sure, but Mul­lus sur­mule­tus, from wa­ters around the

UK, es­pe­cially the English Chan­nel, of­fers the best choice for eth­i­cal eat­ing.

The Cor­nish In­shore Fish­eries and Con­ser­va­tion Author­ity cur­rently of­fers the only man­age­ment mea­sure for this species, but con­sumers are ad­vised by the MSC Good Fish Guide to avoid eat­ing im­ma­ture fish (less than 16cm) and fresh (not pre­vi­ously frozen) ones caught by day boats dur­ing the sum­mer spawn­ing sea­son (May-July). It’s a rel­a­tively fast-grow­ing species, ma­tur­ing at two years old, with a slop­ing head, wide mouth and twin bar­bels (sen­sory or­gans) with which it de­tects food and sifts it from the seabed.

Once you find your fish it’s a de­light, despite it look­ing like a ‘stretched gold­fish’, ac­cord­ing to the late food writer and piscine ex­pert Wil­liam Black. Its high fat con­tent adds rich­ness to the flavour and the liver is con­sid­ered a del­i­cacy, so it’s of­ten sold and cooked ungut­ted, rather like a wood­cock. In­deed they were once known as the wood­cock of the sea.

Scaled and gut­ted, red mul­let is per­haps best grilled but it can also be shal­low-fried or baked. If grilling, slash the body on both sides di­ag­o­nally down to the bone to help it cook more quickly and evenly. It part­ners par­tic­u­larly well with rose­mary, so a sprig or two in the pan al­ways works well. Other flavours it can hap­pily pair with in­clude chervil, tar­ragon and cit­rus.

Mark Hix keeps it sim­ple by fry­ing the pale-pink fil­lets in olive oil un­til they turn white and serv­ing them with fresh sam­phire and a tomato vinai­grette. Rick Stein sug­gests grilling and serv­ing with sauce vierge and toasted fen­nel seeds, or dress­ing fil­lets with pars­ley, gar­lic, toma­toes and chill­ies as a spaghet­tini sauce. José Pizarro de­scribes a lovely recipe of red mul­let – prefer­ably Mediter­ranean sur­mul­let – with pota­toes and black olives that really brings out the sweet flavour of the flesh.

The red mul­let is also a star of one of the last cen­tury’s most iconic fine-din­ing restau­rant dishes, ex­em­pli­fy­ing the zeit­geist of the time and set­ting the course of cook­ing in a new di­rec­tion. Red mul­let with potato scales was cre­ated by leg­endary French chef Paul Bo­cuse at L’Au­berge du Pont de Col­longes in Lyon in the 1960s.

The ‘scales’ of his red mul­let were made from slices of young potato brushed with egg yolk to form a sin­gle sturdy, crispy layer over the en­tire fil­let. Bo­cuse was said to have been in­spired by some­thing he saw at a French food show: a dish of cold sal­mon topped with cu­cum­ber slices (a com­po­si­tion cu­ri­ously fa­mil­iar to many Bri­tish buf­fet dis­plays).

I shall re­sist the temp­ta­tion to de­scribe this as the Mag­gie May of all fish dishes, but I think the rock­ing red mul­let might be heard hum­ming, ‘Do ya think I’m sexy?’ Party on, Sir Mul­lus sur­mule­tus.

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