Red Mullet

The red mullet has always been prized by gourmets although curiously it has never become an expensive luxury. It is sometimes called the “woodcock of the sea” because it should not be cleaned but cooked whole, with its “trail”, as a woodcock should be cooked. It is an extremely delicate fish, nearer to a fine perch than any other sea fish. In the 1850s the Duke of Portland, a notable gourmet, insisted that, taken straight from sea to table, it was the only fish worth eating and its liver an unsurpassed delicacy. He once paid a guinea for a four-pound (2 kg) fish - mullets are usually about a quarter to one pound (120 g to ½ kg) because it would have such an enormous liver. The duke also considered that, at that period, Weymouth, in Dorset, was the best place for these fish. He therefore visited the small seaside town every summer. His custom was to have all the delectable livers served in a butter-boat so that an equal helping could be given to each guest, avoiding the possibility that someone might be disappointed to find that his mullet had a very small liver. All along the south coast in Hampshire and Sussex mullet are still plentiful. The traditional eighteenth-century recipe given here comes from Arundel Castle, which has belonged to the Dukes of Norfolk for 500 years. The vast castle stands above the river Arun, a few miles inland from the Sussex coast. A similar recipe was first recorded in the seventeenth century.

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Ingredients

  • 6 red mullet
  • 1 small tin anchovies, drained and very finely chopped
  • 2 medium onions, very finely sliced
  • 2 tablespoons (30 g) butter into which ¼ cup (30 g) flour has been worked
  • cups (3 dl) red wine
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • 2 sprigs each of thyme, tarragon, lemon thyme and marjoram tied in a bunch or use a bouquet garni
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

Method

Lay the mullet in a large skillet or a fish kettle. Put the chopped anchovies and onions on the fish. Divide the flour and butter mixture into 4 little balls and put them at the ends and sides of the dish. Mix the wine with cups (6 dl) of water, stir in the nutmeg, salt and pepper and pour gently over the fish. Lay the bunch of herbs on top. Bring to the boil, cover the pan and simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Remove the herbs and add the lemon juice. Stir the liquid very gently without disturbing the fish, check the seasoning and simmer for a further 10 minutes.

Lift the mullet on to a flat serving dish. Stir the sauce, which should have the consistency of thin cream. Do not strain the sauce but pour it over the mullet as it is. Garnish by sprinkling with the finely chopped hard-boiled egg.

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