Buying hake sustainably and ideas for what to do with it
“It’s the perpetual whinge of British foodies that “the Spanish get all our best fish” and it might well be true. They don’t just appreciate hake — which until recently we favoured as cat food — but they make special dishes even from its cheeks.”Tim Hayward, The Financial Times, March 2022
The title of the recipe I give for hake (below) is happy-go-lucky hake. But the truth is that the hake species itself is anything but happy – it has been over-fished to dangerous levels.
I hate to point fingers, but the bald truth is that the main culprits are the Spaniards. They eat on average 6 kg each every year, about half the hake in Europe.
How is hake caught or farmed?
Most hake is trawled in deep water, but some is shallow-fished, also by trawler or by longlining (a commercial technique using a long line with a number of branch lines attached, which are baited).
It’s mostly caught, using unsustainable methods, of the coast of Argentina, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, in Europe (where it’s Merluccius merluccious) in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea. In Namibia and South Africa strict sustainable methods are used – they fish the slightly more svelte Merluccius capensis.
How serious is the overfishing problem?
According to Wikipedia, in Argentinian waters “about 80% of adult hake has apparently disappeared…in Chile hake export has decreased by almost 19%.”
Europe has its own problems. The Marine Conservation Society explains that:
“There are two main stocks for European hake – a northern and a southern one. The biomass for the northern stock has recovered from depleted levels following good management and is now at a record high. Fishing effort on the southern stock however remains too high. Avoid eating immature fish below about 50cms, and during their breeding season, February to July.
The Cornish hake gill net fishery was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as a sustainable fishery in June 2015.”
So the problem is in the south. Spain has an extensive deep water fishing fleet which is the biggest and most heavily subsidised in the EU. It seems they’re not particularly law abiding. It has been the case that over half the hake landed in Spain goes unrecorded.
To learn more about how to make sure you’re buying sustainable fish click here.
What does hake taste like?
It’s no wonder the Spanish like their hake. It’s got loads of flavour, dense yet soft and tender – not loved by all – some think it has a slightly mushy texture.
Hake is a low-fat (so, if you’ve also bought from a sustainable source, you can feel virtuous) salt-water fish, related to cod, found in the Atlantic and north Pacific.
It’s a step up from cod, haddock and pollock, whilst not quite up to the quality of halibut. African hake (as opposed to European) is not expensive… just a touch more than cod.
The white flesh should still be white – not grey or tending to brown. It should still be nice and moist with the fresh smell of seawater that you would expect.
What to do with hake
- The Spanish stuff theirs with ham, eggs and herbs, and then poach them (merluzas rellenas)
- Whereas, traditionally in Britain, it was stuffed with milk-soaked breadcrumbs, onions and herbs. Then it was served curled round with its tail between its awesome, pointy gnashers.
- This Italian method also uses breadcrumbs: oil, season, and roll hake fillets in breadcrumbs. Fry them and serve with a sauce made of three parts olive oil to two parts water and one part sherry vinegar, to which you have added some chopped anchovies, or half a teaspoon of Gentleman’s Relish.
- Another Spanish method is to serve hake with a hearty tomato sauce on a bed of braised fennel and potato.
- Kokotxas de merluza al pil pil y judías del Gantxet is the name of the dish Tim Hayward mentions in the quote at the top of this post. It’s a stew of white beans cooked to a mush together with creamed salt cod. This covers the chunks of hake face.
- fry in olive oil and garlic, add parsley and lemon juice and zest and serve with puy lentils and roast cauliflower.
- It’s their method of baking it with chorizo however which has given me the idea for the simple, bacon-wrapped version given below.
Since developing that, I saw that Jerseyman, James Boothman, one of the contestants on The Great Cookbook Challenge, also combined hake with bacon, serving it rather ambitiously, with dukkah and sumac, quince jam, charred purple broccoli and lime aioli!
This is a dish in its own right, but it also goes well with fried gnocchi (500g/1 lb) and green beans (350g/12 oz).
Recipe for Happy Go Lucky Hake
Serves – 4
- 4 x 120g hake fillets
- 8 x rashers thinly sliced smoked bacon
- 250 g chestnut mushrooms, wiped and sliced
- 150 g oyster mushrooms, wiped and sliced
- 4 tbsp olive oil plus more for greasing
- ½ cup/120ml pink martini (rosato vermouth)
- Javanese cubeb pepper (often used in North African cooking, goes well with the coriander, fresh and aromatic)
- garlic and coriander naan bread (plain naan if you don’t like coriander)
- few stalks of coriander (if you don’t like coriander use parsley instead) chopped
Simply heat four tbsp olive oil in a frying pan – fry for four minutes, then joggle and fry for another four minutes at a high enough heat that they start to go crispy. Boil and butter the beans in the time-honoured way.
- Heat oven to 180°C (use bottom right for Aga owners).
- Smear a film of oil over the bottom of a ceramic ovenproof dish.
- Divide each fillet into two vertically, and wrap each half fillet in the bacon.
- Place in the dish and scatter the mushrooms around them.
- Pour over the oil.
- Put in the oven, and after about 10 minutes, baste, to make sure the mushrooms are covered in the oil… add the pink martini.
- Cook for a further ten minutes.
- Put the naan into the oven with the fish, cook for a further ten minutes.
- Take all out, check fish is cooked through (totally opaque).
- Serve, garnished with the chopped coriander.
- And some Indonesian long pepper – you probably don’t need much salt because of the bacon.