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.

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