Why, I wonder, is a fish revered in one European country yet largely ignored in the others? As a fish of the Atlantic, and other cold waters, hake is little known in exclusively Mediterranean countries. Nor is it hugely popular in France, where it is called by one of three names — merlu, merluche, colin — suggesting that the French are unsure about it. Hake is certainly available here but a lot of the British catch is sold to the country which really can’t get enough of it. This, of course, is Spain, where hake (merluza) is the national fish. And when one considers that the Spaniards eat about four times more fish per head than we do, the question arises whether there is enough hake in European waters to satisfy this enormous demand.
According to the Marine Conservation Society, there isn’t. Hake stocks are ‘outside safe biological limits and overfished’. Many people have little respect for the practices of Spanish fishermen, assuming that they will go on hoovering hake from the seas around Europe until the stocks collapse irretrievably. It is not, of course, in Spain’s interests to kill off this source of supply, and the TAC (Total Allowable Catch) has not in fact varied much over the past two years (in the North Sea it has been doubled). At the same time, Spanish boats go farther afield to meet the demand for hake. There are fisheries in the Atlantic off the north African coast, off Namibia, and in South America off Chile. Much of it is sold frozen in packs, allowing the supermarket shopper to choose from hake steaks, hake centre cuts, hake tail pieces, hake fillets with skin, hake fillets without skin.
When it comes to cooking hake, it is important that the fish be really fresh. Those who have tried hake and not thought much of it will probably have noted that the flesh was soft and a bit cottonwoolly. Hake will not be in prime condition for long, but while the flesh remains firm a hake steak, taken from the middle of the fish where there will be less bone, is a very fine thing. This is favourite among the Spanish, who will then cook it in a variety of ways.
Merluza a la Gallega (as they do it in Galicia) will be found on countless menus all over the country. The fish steaks are baked in olive oil, chopped garlic and quite a lot of paprika, and eaten with boiled potatoes. In another Iberian recipe which I also enjoy, the fish is dusted with flour, dipped in egg, fried and eaten with melted butter and capers. Following last month’s column on clams, I learn that hake and clams are popular together, especially in the Basque country, in a dish known as merluza en salsa verde. The green of the sauce comes purely from the use of a lot of chopped parsley, stirred into a pan with butter, olive oil, garlic, fennel seeds and a little flour. White wine and fish stock are then added, together with clams in the shell, a few peas and some previously fried hake steaks.
In France, when you can find hake on a menu, it tends to be grilled and served up with a sauce rémoulade or hollandaise, or a purée of sorrel. The French may be less than enthusiastic about the fish because they deem it inferior to cod, to which it is related. I think hake certainly ranks with cod, and is greatly superior to other members of the cod family, such as pollack (suitable for fish pie, and not bad when smoked), ling and coley.
If you come across small hake, which may be called pin hake, they are delicious fried in very hot oil. Even smaller specimens, probably of illegal size, are offered in Spain, in Andalusia under the name of pijotas. Another Spanish delicacy to look out for is known as kokotxas, which are hake chins, delicately flavoured when fried with breadcrumbs or stewed in stock with paprika.
I like to cook one or two extra hake steaks to eat cold in a salad the following day. The flesh should be flaked and combined with lettuce, spring onions, capers and French dressing. With a few prawns this makes a very acceptable dish for a summer lunch. So, too, does the pudin de merluza for which Penelope Casas gives the recipe in The Foods and Wines of Spain. It is a sort of fish loaf or hake cake, made with bread soaked in the liquid which has cooked the fish, tomato sauce, chopped pimiento and parsley, eggs and cream. The mixture is then packed into a mould and cooked slowly in a pan of water. When cold and with mayonnaise, it makes perfect eating under a Spanish sun, accompanied by lots of pink wine.