A fish that tastes as exceptionally beautiful as it looks
The red mullet gets its name from its wonderful, brightly coloured skin, which shimmers under the light. It’s a beauty, for sure, but it can also be something of a beast. Aggressive and difficult to handle, it is armed with an abundance of very sharp spines. It is also packed with some rather fiddly pin bones.
Thankfully, any hassle involved in preparing it is more than compensated for by its genuinely exceptional flavour—and Borough Market’s fishmongers are more than happy to help.
The fish has been caught for generations by Mediterranean fishermen, but over recent years it has been a common and welcome sight off the shores of southern England. “We tend to catch them when we are fishing for bass,” says Paul Day at Sussex Fish.
“They don’t come into our inshore fisheries in great numbers, so we don’t ever have large amounts on the stall. When they do arrive, they are always among the first fish to be sold.”
This is a great time to buy red mullet. “We have been getting it in increasing numbers for three to four weeks now, so the season is really getting going,” enthuses Peter from Furness Fish and Game, whose stall sources its red mullet from the coast of Cornwall. “It is a lovely fish with some real depth to its flavour—enough to deal with a wider variety of ingredients than some other fish.”
The species is unusual in that it is often eaten whole. Paul explains: “In Mediterranean countries, they fry the smaller ones and then eat the lot—head, bones, guts, everything—like we do with whitebait.” Even if you’re not going to eat the whole fish, it is well worth saving the rich, creamy liver, which is considered something of a delicacy.
One recipe Paul suggests comes from the traditional French celebration of Nouveau Beaujolais Day, which takes place on the third Thursday in November to mark the release of the year’s first beaujolais wines. “I’d get some large vine leaves, wrap the mullet in the leaves with half a glass of beaujolais poured in and put it in the oven at about 180C. When the leaves are dry the fish is cooked.”
Luke Robinson, Borough Market demonstration chef and newly appointed head chef at Corner Room, is a big fan of red mullet. “It has a beautiful colour, especially the Cornish one—bright red with lovely golden-pink colouration on the skin,” he says. “It is quite a delicate fish, so you want to just get it to the point that it begins to flake. It has a good strong flavour, but it must be super fresh.”
A good mix
A classic way of cooking red mullet is pan frying it and serving with a tapenade. “Pan fry the fish until the skin is nice and golden, then make an olive tapenade with some finely diced shallots, herbs of your choice, olive oil—a really good extra virgin olive oil with a bit of pepperiness to it—maybe an anchovy chopped through, olives, and give it a good mix,” Luke explains.
“Toast a nice bit of sourdough bread and place the fish and tapenade on the toast. Serve it with some salad leaves. It is really simple and very tasty.”
You could also try Luke’s red mullet with bouillabaisse broth or a salt baked red mullet with mayonnaise and lemon. If you have fillets, Luke suggests you cook the fish skin side down until golden brown, then briefly place the flesh side on the pan for a few seconds, before moving it to a warm tray. “The residual heat will cook the fish beautifully.”
If cooking the fish whole, score it down to the bone and fry for about a minute and a half on each side. “Either way, finish the fish off with a squeeze of lemon.”