Mullet over

Food - 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 £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 Becasse de mer, or woodcock of the sea). But by now, I would be hungry to finish and cash in my advance. To boost my word count, I might lazily quote this mouthwatering description of rougets cooked by a hotelier in Brittany, M Lautram, from Patience Gray's Work Adventures, Childhood Dreams.

Gray, the author of that Mediterranean classic Honey from a Weed, gives Lautram's instructions for eight rosy mullets, guts out but livers in: "Put 80g of butter and a glass of white wine in an oven dish, put in the fish and cook them in a moderate oven for 25 minutes. Put the liquor thus obtained in a little pan, and thicken with good butter and a little flour. Set the fish in a serving dish, cover them with sauce and sprinkle with very finely chopped parsley." This is the recipe he gave me written in French in his own hand in pencil. What he fails to say is that the sauce, copious and perfectly amalgamated in which the fish are literally bathed, is achieved by a "tour de main". The real secret, it turns out, is to make a beurre manie from 200g of slightly salted butter and 150g of flour, which is then "divided into little dibs and dabs perched round the rim of the pan" and incorporated bit by bit. "This is a perfect example", Gray says, "of a 'simple' recipe conveying no idea of procedure, or an instance of a true Breton's reluctance to share his secrets. I simply had to beard him in the outhouse at the crucial moment to watch him make this sauce. And now I've told you." End of book. I think it's a winner.

Patience Gray's Work Adventures, Childhood Dreams is available from Prospect Books (£30) (tom.jaine@ prospectbooks.co.uk or 01803 712269). Bee Wilson's Red Mullet is (at the moment) available nowhere

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune