Tuesday 14 January 2014

A fish called Colin!

A fishy tale....

In recent years I have been spending most of my holidays in Spain and loving the rich variety of fish available.  Many of the varieties are not seen in English fishmongers and it takes quite an effort to learn what is what.  In the 1980s I spent many summers in France and became somewhat confused by some of the names used for particular varieties of fish.  In Paris I had come across Colin and was told it was Hake, but in south west France, where I usually stayed, Hake was called Merlu.

I was not the only one to be confused as this letter in The Guardian from 2009 shows:
·         The Guardian, Friday 10 April 2009
We have frequently found confusion in France over what to ask for when buying hake (Letters, 9 April). Ask for a colin south of the Loire and they won't know what you're talking about as they call it merlu. But north of the Loire, especially in Paris, it's called colin. We are not alone in our confusion as Larousse (1961 edition) recognised the north-south divide, but quotes merlan for the south, even though this is whiting. Keep up with me.
Move on 10 years and Pamela Vandyke Price just recognises colin as hake, in an otherwise remarkably useful Eating and Drinking in France Today (1971). Move on another 30 years and Alan Davidson's North Atlantic Seafood (2003) uses colin and merlu correctly, but also adds to the confusion by calling pollack colin in northern France. I have never heard pollack called that name. Most fish shops' bestselling fish is lieu jeune (pollack) and lieu noir (coley) - and you'll find great slabs of both in every supermarket in France.
Brian Smith
Highcliffe, Dorset
Pollack are definitely not the same as coley (coalfish). Pollack are brownish in appearence, with a dark lateral line, whereas coalfish are blue/black with a white line. Both are equally tasteless. Many years ago, fishing from the shore, we ate our first catches, but soon they were relegated to dog food. Our favourites were mackerel, haddock and gurnard, followed by plaice, dab, cod and ling. Both pollack and coalfish can be caught almost anywhere along the west coast; coalfish are the more abundant in Scotland, but the reverse applies in Wales and the south-west.
George Kitchin
Penrith, Cumbria

So, north of the Loire Hake is called Colin but in the south they call it Merlu, which is closer to its Spanish name Merluza and its scientific Family name Merlucciidae.  So had I cracked it? Apparently not.
There are about a dozen different species of Hake around the world in the Northern and Southern Atlantic, the Pacific and in the Mediterranean & Black Seas. In Spain it is one of the most widely eaten fish and the Spanish account for between a third and a half of all Hake consumed in Europe.

To add to the confusion though, in parts of the English speaking world, such as the US, the name Hake is also used for fish of the Phycidaei  family, such as the Greater Forkbeard and the Spotted Codling found in the Atlantic, but that’s another story and I want to concentrate on Spain.

Having read the letters in The Guardian, I checked my rather tattered 1988 paperback copy of Larousse and there Merlan is correctly translated as Whiting, and Hake is translated as Merlu, but in the text, Larousse confirms that in restaurants and fishmongers it is commonly referred to as Colin.  Larousse then adds either confusion or enlightenment by explaining that Hake has a dark-grey/black head and that the French word colin comes from the Dutch word koolvisch meaning “coal fish” which in England we would call Coley, Coalfish or Saithe! But Coley is NOT Hake.
Just when I thought it was getting easier, I discover a fish in Spain called Abadejo, whose scientific name is Pollachius pollachius which, not surprisingly, is known as Pollack in England (American spelling, Pollock) but in France it is known as Lieu but it is also known as Colin noir.  There appear to be two varieties of Lieu - Lieu noir and Lieu jaune and I have been told recently that and Lieu jaune is Pollack and Lieu noir is Coley.

Nowadays I spend little time in France so I will leave the unravelling of the French nomenclature to some enthusiastic Francophile and I will concentrate on comprehending the Spanish names.  Sometimes the scientific family name can be of help as with Pollachius pollachius (Pollack above); and there is a related species Pollachius virens which appears  to be Coley.   Problem solved?  Well not quite.  In Spain they seem to use the same name, Abadejo, for both Pollack and Coley.  I have heard that in some parts of Spain Pollack may be called Palero  but I have not seen this name in any fishmongers, market or supermarket.

And just when I thought I was nearly there I learn that in some parts of Spain, Faneca, which in England is known as Pout or Pouting, is labelled Abadejo!

Is there anyone out there who can add to my enlightenment - or confusion?

John Austin
January 2014


  1. Just looked in the latest Larousse in Foyle's and it doesn't mention Merlu, simply says Hake is called Colin in France

  2. Visited the St Quentin market in Paris on Friday and saw a whole fish labelled "Colin" but it certainly wasn't Hake - suspect it might have been Pollack. Of course Sainsbury has added to confusion by renaming their Pollack as "Colin"


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