Six ways with mackerel

The mackerel were more plentiful this year than last year although there were a couple of times during our second week in Ahakista when I had to rely on the kindness of men coming in on the pier with their buckets rather than my own skill with a hook and line off Owen island.

Our first day there was a Friday. 

We had arrived six hours late having been held up for two hours on the motorway five minutes drive from home. The hold up was caused by a man on a bridge threatening to throw himself off. It was an interesting experience being stationary on the motorway for that length of time. We could see what was happening and it was clear there was no danger that the traffic would suddenly start moving. Both carriageways were closed and as we waited people got out of their cars to sit in the sun on the empty carriageway across from us enjoying the silence. Conversations were started up and it was easy to imagine slight strange off kilter relationships being formed as we watched the man on the bridge two hundred yards in front of us. 

He was talked off after an hour but there was another long wait before we started moving the first sound being the roar of the motorbikes that had been able to make their way to the front of the queue.

As a result of the delay we missed the ferry we were due to catch from Holyhead to 8.00 in the evening. There was another at 3.00 in the morning and we got that instead. During the wait in Holyhead we had a Mike Leigh like meal in a curry house called Taste of India and bedded down in the car for a couple of hours the first in the queue to get on.

We should have arrived in Ahakista at 4.00 in the morning which would have given me time to get to Bantry Market and a pint at Ma Murphys. With the delay we did not get there until 10.30 and I had to forgo my pint. But the sun was shining and in the afternoon I caught 8 good-sized mackerel from the kayak. We ate them that evening. The fillets were fried quickly in a pan and eaten on toast.

On Saturday I walked up the pier to talk to Tommy after a year away. His boat had just come in and he was loading a crate of small crab into the back of his van. As we talked he asked if I would like some. They were velvet crab and I said I would take a few and try them for lunch. I cooked them for a few minutes in a pan of boiling sea water and we pulled them apart with our fingers. There wasn’t much meat inside of them but what we could find was good and sweet.

The following day, Sunday, I caught another 8 mackerel from almost the same spot. I had gone out in the early morning so we had them for lunch on the barbeque. I cooked them whole the skin black and crisp from the heat protecting the white meat. There is no better way to cook fresh mackerel than over an open flame.

Two days later I caught another bucketful and we had these raw as part of a mackerel tartare.

I had made mackerel tartare the previous year and was determined to do it again. this time I would make sure I skinned all of the fillets. It took me a few fillets to work out how best to do it. I held them down with my fingers at the thin tail end and then used a long sharp knife to nick down to the skin. It was then a matter of keeping the knife as flat to the chopping board as I could running it along so that the skin was left behind. The skin went to the birds. The skinned fillets were chopped with a handful each of gherkins and capers. I then stirred in some chopped cucumber which had been skinned and seeded and cured briefly in a mixture of salt and pepper. It was seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and bit of chopped dill.

We ate it for the lunch with pieces of thin toast.

Two days later I used another bucketful of mackerel to make an approximation of kedgeree. I had to dust down and give a wipe to the smoker which was on a back shelf in the garage. It worked as well as I remembered and once it was going the fillets of mackerel took only a few minutes to cook.

They were smoked with their skin on but I peeled the skin off before stirring the fillets gently into a large pan of curried onions and cooked rice. Any juices that were left over from the mackerel were poured over the finished dish.

We ate it sat by a fire on the beach watching out for shooting stars.

I cured the next haul of mackerel. The recipe was taken from a book of Lisbon cooking I was given earlier this year. I made up a mixture of salt and sugar which was flavoured with some fronds of fennel. Half of this was scattered on a metal tray. Skinned fillets of mackerel went on to and were then covered with the rest of the salt and sugar mixture.

This was left to macerate for 30 minutes or so. I then washed off the salt and pepper and we ate the fillets chopped into a tomato salad.

These were the last of the mackerel we caught. For the rest of the last week we were reliant on the kindness of men on the pier. 

It was a matter of waiting for a boat to come in and then walking up the pier to look and ask what they had caught. If there were too many in their bucket there was was always a chance of an offer to take some off them – particularly if I was able to get in the conversation the lack of luck we had had when out fishing.

I got four good mackerel this way one morning and this time gave them a longer cure. The recipe came from a faded photocopied page from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book of fish cooking which I brought to the Cottage some 15 years ago when I first started to think about putting a collection of mackerel recipes together. 

The salt and sugar mixture was much the same as I used last time but more ground black pepper was added together with a good handful of chopped dill. I cured the mackerel in an old sweet box that may have added another layer of sweetness to the cure. It went into the fridge for a day.

We ate the mackerel outside in the sun with the bounty from a trip to Bantry market. the longer cure had tightened the fillets of fish up and they had taken on a greater layer of sweetness. The only complaint was my failure to debone all of the fillets.

Doing without water

Most of last nights post was written five years ago as we received news from another family who had to spend 7 days in the Cottage without water because of a hole in the pipe from the well to the Cottage.

This year we spent the best part of two weeks in the Cottage without water. Following two months without rain in June and July the well really had run dry. When Jim the pump man testing the depth, with a long length of rope with a spanner on the end, he reported there was only 10 foot of muddy water down there when it should be at least 50.

A good two weeks of rain was needed to sort it all out. Although it did rain whilst we were there it was mostly soft low cloud and it it rarely came down hard enough to fill anything.

In the meantime there was no running water, no showers and no flushing.

Buckets of sea water were brought in for flushing purposes and we made use of the tap on the pier for anything else. There wasn’t much washing done and we relied on the fresh air and the sea,

Halfway through the two weeks I tried to give myself a clean in the orchard. I had two large bottles of water that had been warming in the sun. I took my glasses off and having positioned myself well out of sight of the road I stripped off and sluiced myself down with soap and the warm water. Halfway through the process I realised that whilst I was out of sight of the road I was in full view of anyone who might have been walking back down the pier. Fortunately with my glasses off there was no easy way to tell if anyone was there so I carried on.

Towards the end of the two weeks Jim rigged up a temporary solution to try replenish the well by connecting a blue hose to a  cattle trough somewhere up the hill behind the orchard.


It worked!

The difference between shovels and spades

We all knew we were going to be without water for a few days.

There was plenty round the corner in the sea but nothing coming out of the tap. The well had run dry and try as we might and no matter what buttons we pressed there was nothing coming out. If we turned a tap on there was a conciliatory grunt of air but nothing further. The water was done.

It took a breakfast and its dirty dishes for us to start missing it. The smell of milk could not be scrubbed away with hot water from the sea. It needed hot fresh water and soapy suds.

The pump in the orchard was working and Joseph Holland had shown us the screw to turn that sent water gushing our around our feet as we stood by it. The water was coming out of the ground but it wasn’t making it the few hundred yards from the pump to the Cottage.

Having talked it over in the pub we had called the number on the big sign on a wall on the drive through Drimoleague

Harte Bros Water Divining

& Well Boring established 1929

The diviner’s hand patted the air as he spoke. He had a pitched voice.

‘We’ll need a feckin’ hole’ he said looking at the distance between the pump house and the Cottage.

‘A feckin’ long hole. If we dig enough we’ll find the leak and then we can patch it up. We may not need to punch you a new well. Digging holes is the best way to do it.’

‘There was a man thought he could do it with food dye. He had more water than he knew what to do with coming out of his well. It was like a feckin’ great fountain so tall it went into the air. All he needed was one of those stone statues and he could have made something of his garden. But as soon as he connected the pump to the pipe to take the water to the house the water disappeared. So he should have dug a hole. But this man the feck didn’t want holes in his garden he had enough of that with the moles and their little black mounds on his green lawn. So he put a pot of purple food dye into the water to see where it came out. Well all of his pipe was fecked and the water was leaking all over his garden and in a week all his green grass he was so proud of had turned purple. And we still had to dig up his lawn to find the leak.’

‘So we’ll dig you a hole and we’ll find you your leak.’

He paused and looked at the ground.

‘And don’t you be thinking that I will be walking up and down here holding some sort of forked stick.’

‘They did a test with diviners. Put pipes with water in under a field and sent them out with their sticks and they walked up and down and dug holes to find where the water was. Then they covered up those holes and they sent some other men into the same field and just told them to dig some holes to see if they could find any water. Well the men who just went into the field to dig and carried no sticks with them found as much water as the men with their forked sticks. So why feckin’ bother I said to myself. Why carry a stick and try and pretend I know what I am doing when all I have to do is dig some holes to find water. A diviner see is a man who finds water. Well I find water by digging holes.’

‘So let us go to the pub and have a pint and see if there is a man there with a digger and we can start at the digging.


The talk in the pub cheered considerably when news got out that we had no water in the Cottage. It only took the one visit and a quick conversation at the bar with the diviner whose name I had not managed to catch and it appeared that everybody knew there was a problem. And it was one they could contribute to and it was on the doorstep so if a site visit was needed it could be done whilst another pint was being poured.

The first surprise was that we actually drank the water. There were one or two who had assumed that I managed get by on a solid diet of Murphys but then the concern shifted to the fact that we would put the clear stuff that came out of the tap and drink it and sometimes make a cup of tea out of it.

‘But feck it is filthy stuff straight out of the tap. Do you not do anything to clean it? How deep is your well? It it isn’t more than a hundred or so feet down there’s more piss than water that’ll be down there. Have you not counted the cows on the hills here?’

‘Before it comes out of your tap it has been there down in the ground and feck alone knows how long it has been there gathering dust. What does it taste like? Does it not have a colour to it? Some of the houses here they have a filter for the water so it is clean before you have a bath or use it to flush your toilet. Feck alone knows why you need clean water for that but there is some that don’t like to flush with dirty water. And you can’t get a good soap up unless the water has been cleaned.’

I thought of the water that came out of the tap in the Cottage. It has a thick brackish taste to it sometimes and it can be cloudy, almost ruddy, in a clear glass, but that normally clears after a minute or so. We have been drinking it for fifteen years now and still seem to be doing okay. But that was when it was coming out of the tap.

‘If it isn’t coming out the tap that’ll be a leak. And for a leak you will need to dig some holes. It’ll be a long pipe you have there so have you got a good shovel in your garage?’


Six men stood in the road including myself. We all stood there hands in our pockets looking down at the tarmac. The sky was bright and sunny and all the activity on the pier had shifted to the hundred or so yards between the low pump house and the Cottage. That activity was now focussed on the road that separated the Cottage from the orchard where the pump house was situated and the length of pipe that must run underneath it.

Having taken advice in the pub a series of holes had been dug. There were five of them running down the orchard and one across the road by the Cottage. Each of them had revealed a length of the black pipe that run from the pump and there was no sign of a leak.

There had been some debate as to exactly where the holes should be dug.

Some of the men thought there should be some science to it and so they suggested stamping at the ground with their feet. Tom Cronin said that if it sounded hollow with the ground being so dry that was a sure sign that there was the leak. So there was a stamping of feet and one of the men told Tom Cronin he was a feckin’ fool as all of the clumping sounded hollow to him and there was nothing to it but to dig some feckin’ holes.

We looked at the diviner but he just shrugged his shoulders and patted the air with his hands and told us to dig where we thought best and if we found the leak then there it was.

With that advice in our ears I was asked for a shovel. I fetched one from the garage and gave it to the man.

‘That’s not a shovel’ he said. ‘That’s a feckin spade you’ve given me. You can’t dig a hole with a spade. A shovel has a point you see. A spade you can use for digging potatoes but you need a shovel for digging holes.’

There was some delay whilst some shovels were found and we then set about digging the holes. There were done in a couple of hours but there was no sign of a leak.

There was a pause then for some further talk and as it was warm we took that talk in the pub. The pipe ran under the road to the Cottage and so the next place to dig was outside the Cottage near where the pipe ran in. There was concrete there and one of the men mentioned that his cousin had a small digger that would go through the concrete if he gave him a call he would have it on the pier whilst we finished off the next pint.

Twenty minutes later we stood by the Cottage and watched as the small digger tore at a patch of concrete. The pipe ran just under the surface but it was dry there as well.

Tom Cronin had the answer now and he pointed to the road. ‘There’s the leak he said. It’s in the feckin’ road. Look we’ll dig it up now and we’ll have your water back soon enough.’

I tried to suggest that perhaps we should not be digging holes in the main road up the peninsula.

‘You’ll need to wait for the council then’ he said. ‘If you wait for them you’ll have no feckin’ water for a year. Look any car coming down for the next hour we can turn it back and they can take the back road. The digger here will have the road up quickly enough and we’ll find your leak and then we’ll put the road back again and it’ll be no worse than any other part of it.’

I baulked at digging up the road even if it came with the promise of clean fresh water in the Cottage after more than a week without. Although Cork and its council felt a long way away I was sure they would come knocking if we started digging at the road.

‘Can we not pull at the pipe?’ I said.

Tom Cronin bent down then and took the black pipe is hand and gave it a hard yank. It came out loose in his hand. He pulled hard at it again and the rest of it came out a few drops of water spilling out of the end.

He scurried across the road and pulled out the other half. More water spilled out of that end. So we had the pipe in half, one piece each side of the road.

‘We have it. We have it!’ he cried. ‘There’s the feckin’ leak. It lies under the road and now all we need do is dig it up and put it together.’