Just when it seemed that the herring had secured its position as king of the fishes, due to its speed and skills in traffic control (see last week’s weekly fish), its claim to the throne was challenged. The striped red mullet (Mullus surmuletus) was, in countries around the North Sea, known as “King of the Herrings” or “King of the Sea”. As with the common herring, there was a story told by fishermen according to which the mullet had been chosen to be king at a gathering of all fishes. This had nothing to do with its speed, however, and everything with its appearance.

WF Mullet Fig 2
The King of the Herrings, complete with a crown, from Coenen’s 1578 Visboek.

The 16th century Dutch ichthyologist Adriaen Coenen described the King of Herrings as a red fish with large scales, quite a bit bigger than a herring. Most notably, this fish would sometimes be found in the nets of fishermen, between thousands of herrings. Fishermen would be delighted when they found a mullet like this. Coenen writes that it gave them “hope for a good herring catch. For their belief and opinion is that where the king is, there is also a great number of herrings.” Befitting its royal status, the mullet was an expensive fish. So much so, that the 18th century naturalist Martinus Houttuyn reports an Italian saying: “La Triglia non mangia chi la piglia.” He who catches the mullet does not eat it.

With regards to eating, it should be noted that there is a traditional smoked herring that is called “King of the Herrings”. Presumably because herrings, when smoked, turn red, like a mullet. But that may be a distraction.

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