It was a bloody business and one writer in Blackwoods Magazine about 1870 saw it was the fish-wife’s revenge: “When gutting is at its height their hands, their neck, their busts, their “dreadful faces thronge’d, and fiery arms”, their every bit about them, fore and aft, are spotted and besprinkled with little scarlet clots of gills and guts. A bob down to slice a herring and a bob up to throw it into the basket and the job is done. These ruthless widows seize upon the dead herrings with such a fierceness as almost to denote revenge for their husband’s deaths – victims of the herring lottery – and the widows scatter about the gills and guts as if they had no bowels of compassion”.
Business in Deep Waters
You need a sharp knife and be prepared to get your hands bloody.
It is best to do this by the rock pools down by the beach. They are perfect for washing down the fish once you are done and well placed for the seagulls that will start to gather a minute or two after you start.
Take a fish in your left hand belly up and head pointing away from you. Put the point of the knife in the small hole towards the tail of the fish, properly known as its vent, and when the blade has torn the skin move it gently with a slight sawing motion towards the head, slitting open its belly until you get to the pectoral fins beneath the head. Take the knife carefully between these fins pulling it out just before the gills. As you are doing all this be careful not to go too far into the gut cavity.
With your fingers draw out the guts, ideally in one ferreting motion, from the head back down to the vent, making sure to take everything out, then push your thumb hard up against the back bone and run it down forcing against the nail the black line of blood that lies there and clearing out any residue of gut. A Guide to filleting mackerel produced for the Billingsgate Seafood Training School tells you not to use your bare hands for this and to put on surgical gloves. But you will be on holiday, flush with the success of your catch, there will be a pint to hand and your hands should already be bloody from the killing of them in the boat. You can always clean up in the sea.
It can be instructive to take a look at what you are pulling out. Mackerel are indiscriminate eaters cruising the dark waters mouth wide open, all part of one vast pack, taking in plankton, sprat and baby squid. Sometimes as the bloody gob of gut lies in your hand they can be seen undigested and perfectly formed as if they had only been taken from the sea a few moments before. Look closely and the sprat maybe a baby mackerel, only an inch or so long but otherwise the perfect copy of the fish you are holding in your other hand, its tiger stripes and colour still vibrant back in the sun-light. This last year as a line of mackerel was spilling into the bottom of the boat one of them spat out a small sprat its skin abraded by the sharp teeth of the bigger fish.
Throw the guts for the gulls.
You may have to wait a minute or two before they realise you are there. But one will be flying on its determined straight line out to sea and will swerve off course when it sees you, or another will catch what is going on from its perch on one of the lights on the pier. Rather than keeping the news to itself it will hawk back its head and broadcast a triumphant cry to all and sundry that there are guts to be had and soon there will be a dozen or so circling overhead ready to take their fill from the water, the air filling with the sound of their bark and bray, the birds reeling up and then down in a rush to the water, sharp yellow beaks snatching through the flurrying wings before pulling away. If one has been particularly greedy it will be chased on its way back to Owen Island and if inexperienced forced to cough up its meal back to the sea for it to be gobbled down by its stronger pursuer.
Wash out the fish in one of the pools making sure you get ride of any residue of blood.
The Romans used mackerel to make garum, a fermented fish sauce similar to soy sauce.
According to a 1st century BC Roman poet Martial, the preparation of garum involved securing “the blood of a still-gasping mackerel,” which was mixed with salt, and left to ferment for as long as three months. As well as mackerel, prawns, sardines, anchovies, tuna, salmon, red mullet and oysters were used. There is a temptation to think of all this as little more than a mess of rotting fish but the use of the word fermentation should tell us that there is more going on. It was important to use fresh fish. Enzymes in the gut of the fish reacted with the salt, producing an acrid smelling brine. Some writersthought that mackerel produced the best with tuna second.
Closer to home we have Worcester Sauce, made from rotten anchovies, producing the same deepening of flavour to a shepherd’s pie or dish of macaroni chase.
There is a debate as to whether to keep the heads on or take them off. If you do take off the heads throw them high in the air and watch to see if a gull can catch it before it hits the water. I prefer to keep them on but, of course, it makes no difference to the taste.
If you want to fillet them put one flat down on a smooth stone. Cut down just behind the head, behind the gills and the pectoral fin, pushing this out of the way, with the blade of the knife pointed slightly towards the tail until you can feel the backbone. Turn the blade of the knife so it faces the tail then run it down the bone to the tail. You will need to lay your hand gently but firmly over the head and the top part of the body. Work the knife down the body towards the tail always keeping a slight pressure down from your other hand over the blade to keep it all in place. As you get near the tail you should have the best of the fillet and you can take the knife down more quickly to take it away. There is a tension as you try to ensure that as much flesh is taken with the fillet as possible. Invariably there will be few bones that are missed but by the time it is cooked they are so soft they are hardly noticeable.
Turn the fish over and do it again down the other side. This always more difficult and more care needs to taken to keep the knife running the right side of the back bone, and it will skit against the stone underneath. But with a little practice you should still end up with two reasonably sized fillets and after doing it a few times you will start to feel how it works best.
After the gutting is finished the gulls will stay by the water, a couple of dozen swimming around the rocks waiting for more, chasing half heartedly for the odd scrap that has been missed in the melee and then over the course of twenty minutes or so they will peel away back to Owen Island and their circling around the bay
Before we get to how to cook them it is necessary to remember that they are oily fish and full flavoured. There is nothing of the easy, bland taste of cod or haddock about them. Mackerel should not be cooked with cream or rich sauces; that is not to say it cannot be coupled with a strong flavour. They are a robust fish and will stand up well to the more strident and astringent ingredients; garlic, lemon and salt, cumin, paprika and chilli. And they are easy to eat. There are no hidden bones and when cooked right the fillets come easy. There is nothing to catch in the back of the throat, so be bold, cook them quickly and with respect, straight out of the sea they are the best, and most true, of fish.
As Paddy Arundel says There is either too many of them or too little. But they taste better when they are scarce.