The merlan is a European food fish found in the Atlantic Ocean from the waters of Norway to Gibraltar, in the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and off the coast of Iceland. It is the smallest of the cod family and is closely related to the English whiting (Melangus vulgaris) and the North American silver hake (Merlucius vulgaris). Merlan is its French name. It is known as pescadilla in Spain, while the Italians call it merlano.
Merlan is found up to a depth of 200 meters in coastal waters supporting herbaceous marine growth. It is a predator, feeding mainly on tiny shrimp, anchovies, young herring, baby squid, and even fingerling merlan. Torpedo shaped and golden beige on the back with silver sides fading to cream on the bottom, it reaches a size of around 20 cm at the age of one year, although it can be found as large as 70 cm in Icelandic waters.
In the Mediterranean basin, where the price of fish other than farm-raised is often higher than the price of good beef, the merlan is relatively cheap. The European Union has set a minimum size of 23 cm for merlan harvesting. A fish of this size, or the two fillets from a fish this size, makes an average serving for an adult. Besides being rich in vitamins, mineral salts, iodine and iron, merlan has the advantage of being practically fat-free. Unlike many salt water fish, it has no strong flavor. It is often served to children and people who are not very fond of fish.
In the south of France, in Provence, merlan is known as the "angry fish", possibly because of its voracious feeding habits. Perhaps this is also why it is presented in the following fashion for simple family meals.
Merlan Biting Its Own Tail
The merlan has very fine, nearly invisible scales. Scale the fish by running the back of a knife blade against the scales. Slit from under the jaw to the vent hole and remove the intestines. Wipe the fish inside and out with a wet paper towel.
Twist the fish into a circle and put its jaws around its tail. Using a round, double-pointed toothpick, skewer the jaw to the tail by driving one end of the toothpick through the cavity under the eye. In this way you will pierce the tip of the tail just in front of the tailfins, which will hold the jaws around the tail. Put the fish in a broad, shallow saucepan.
Add a few crushed peppercorns, several slices of white onion, and one or two bay leaves. Cover the fish with water, put a lid on the pan, and simmer until the skin on the back of the fish splits. Serve with lemon wedges.
The merlan has many fine bones but, when served this way, large pieces of flesh can be detached from the skelton, leaving the bone structure intact.
There are many, many recipes for merlan, often incorporating tomato or cream, but the flavor is so delicate that it is a shame to mask it with any kind of a sauce. Merlan can be grilled or barbequed whole after being marinated for several hours in olive oil with minced chives, parsley and shallots.