We are starting to see bacaladilla and pescadilla on fishmongers slabs. When I first came to Spain with my evening-class Spanish, I leapt to the conclusion that the first was baby bacalao – baby cod and the second was just baby fish in general. Typical that an immigrant like me should think the worst of his hosts. I thought for years that fishmongers were selling undersized cod – something forbidden to British fishermen.
But bacaladilla in fact refers to a diminutive species of whiting. This is a fish of the cod family and swims with codling in the deep sea but is a small species that only grows to 300grams, about half a pound. In English it would be called “Blue whiting” if you could get it in England. It is a silver fish, sometimes with blue speckles on the belly, a cod like fish that lives in large shoals. They feed on shrimp and squid and occasionally on each other. They are voracious feeders, sometimes tearing into prey that they don’t subsequently eat.
If you are old like me and can remember a time when Brits only ate cod and haddock, you will recall that coley was for the cat and whiting was for invalids – served boiled with some gluckky sauce. In fact, my local fish monger tells me that bacaladilla is great for growing children. It’s full of calcium, high in vitamins A and B and very low in fat.
It tastes best shallow fried, simply gutted with or without the head (your fish monger will do this for you) dusted in seasoned harina rebozado and fried ’til golden. Or you can butterfly it by running your thumb along the spine of a gutted and headed fish, then lifting out the spine and tail. The last time I looked, you could buy it for €2 – €5 a kilo.
Pescadilla is a different kettle of fish so to speak. Also of the cod family, it is defined as ” A breeding Hake that has passed its first phase of growth”. It lives in the deep ocean , always away from the coast except in summer when it feeds closer to the shore. It too is a voracious carnivore, hunting fish at night. Its body is silver and shines in and out of the water but you can always recognise a hake, young or old, by the great toothy jaw with razor sharp teeth that point backwards. It feeds on fish and shellfish and the variety of its diet is what makes its flesh so rich.
It has a better flavour than bacaladilla and is much more expensive at €12 to €16, though even at this price it can find its way onto a Menu del Dia as an occasional option. In bars it is always served fried in a circle, biting its own tail, but it’s also good stuffed and baked. Butterfly the fish by removing its guts and head and taking out its spine. Chop an onion small and fry it gently until golden with some garlic. Mix in a handful of fresh spinach leaves per fish. Season with salt pepper and a little nutmeg. That’s it. You can add chopped prawns, or pine nuts or walnut pieces or a teaspoon of grated parmesan per fish. Stuff the fish, brush with oil and bake in a pre heated hot oven for about 15 minutes.
The problem for the consumer is whether to eat pescadilla at all. Do you want to be part of the Spanish habit of eating undersized fish? Although pescadilla is of breeding age these young hake might better be left to breed in the sea for a few more years. Many species of fish are sold in Spain in their immature state. Killed before they reach breeding age, the industry and the consumer forfeits the millions of kilos of fish they might have produced had they lived. Red mullet for example, one of the most delicious fish in the sea. Piles of immature baby mullet can be seen on any fishmongers slab any day of the week and this is the result of the rape of shallow ocean shelf by inshore Spanish fishermen using small mesh nets. Turbot on the other hand, which looks like a big fish, are often actually babies. It takes a turbot many years to grow to sexual maturity, yet the small “chicken” sexually immature turbot can be found both in small stalls and in big supermarkets at the ludicrously low price of €13 per kilo.
Catching undersized fish is one of the main causes of the depletion of fish stocks and there are many Spanish laws against it. The point is to make those laws effective. In Spain it costs little to pass a law but a great deal to enforce it, so inspectors and enforcement agencies are woefully inadequate. Although Spanish fishermen are notorious for catching undersized fish, there are more inspectors in Newlyn, Cornwall, than in all of Spain.
Classic dishes of Malaga – mixed Malaga fried fish for example, are full of undersized fish. This is entirely unnecessary. The dish would not suffer if small species fish were used such as anchovies, sardines, bacaladilla and small species of the squid family plus cuts of larger fish. All fish eaters know that larger fish have a better flavour, though of course they are more expensive. Eating undersized fish in Spain became a tradition because historically these fish were the rubbish, the throw outs of the catch and therefore the cheap food of the poor.
If you care about fish stocks, bacaladilla might be a more ethical lunch than pescadilla, though it depends entirely where the pescadilla is caught. I was in Eroskis last week and my favourite fishwife was advising me to hang on for a few days because they were getting some superb pescadilla (baby hake) from Caleta, the landing stage for local fish. She kissed her fingers, it was that good! This of course would be the Mediterranean Hake merlucius merlucius, which is almost extinct. The north Atlantic or silver hake Merluccius bilinearis is not endangered. Its stocks are strong and were well looked after by northern fishermen until Spanish industrial fishing boats moved in. This would be a more ethical choice if you could get your fish monger to tell you where your fish were caught.
It might well be argued that under the scandalous and disgraceful policies of the European Community Common Fisheries Policy, all “by catch” and undersized catch have to be “discarded” anyway. They would simply be thrown back dead into the water as seagull food. Good point, though the undersized fish industry is like the drug industry. The only way to deal with it is surely to reduce demand.
The community is seeking to reform the Common Fisheries Policy and ironically its reforms, including the “discard ” directive, are being blocked by Spain, the greatest beneficiary of present policies. Spain has by far the largest fishing fleet in Europe including some large industrial scale fishing operators, supported and encouraged by massive European taxpayer funded subsidies. Spain is leading a group of EU nations blocking positive change on the CFP and as the chief benefactor of the existing corrupt arrangements, Madrid will continue to resist.