Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mullet Over

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mullet Over

Article excerpt

BEE WILSON promises to write the next bestseller

I sometimes fantasise about writing one of those non-fiction story books that are now so ubiquitous on the display tables of Waterstones. Other people have already tried to write the Longitude of food. There have been histories of apples, of potatoes and tomatoes, of chocolate, of courtesans and fish cakes, of nutmeg, of cod. But mine would be different. I think I've found a candidate to trump them all. Red mullet: the fish that rocked the ancient world. It is I, Claudius meets The Tulip meets French Provincial Cooking, with a dazzling crimson illustration on the cover.

First, the I, Claudius bit. In classical Rome, the upper classes enjoyed the cruel sport of cooking mullet at table. These glistening beauties would be put in a crystal vessel and then heated very slowly, so that guests could enjoy the aesthetic experience of watching the fish change colour as they died. I would add a few irrelevant but gory passages about poisonings and incest before citing Seneca: he claimed that a Roman would not visit his dying father, even if he stood to gain by his death, if he could watch a dying red mullet instead.

Then, the tulip bit. Long before tulip fever, there was mullet fever. Most gastronomes now prefer the flavour of relatively small mullet. But the ancient Romans paid mad money for the largest specimens. It is said that Tiberius auctioned a famous red mullet weighing four and a half pounds, which inspired competitive bidding between Apicius and another mullet-lover. The fish eventually sold for 5,000 sestertii, something like [pounds]4,000 today.

After comparing this crazed behaviour to the South Sea Bubble, I would move on to my Elizabeth David-ish final section. There'd be a few simple ways of grilling red mullet with fennel or anchovies, and an explanation that real enthusiasts like to eat the fish innards and all, for their gamey taste (it is sometimes known as B[acute{e}]casse de mer, or woodcock of the sea). …

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