August 2000

Ode to the Mackerel

Brixham, Devon 7 August 2000 For one reason or another, we’ve not had the chance to get out on our boat much this summer. However, this weekend we were determined to get away. So we packed up Ophidia with sleeping bags, waterproofs, and the boat barbecue, and slipped down the Exe on the ebb, our destination a short passage to Brixham, down the coast some 20 miles away at the far end of Torbay.
Topsham itself lies upriver some miles from the sea, so to reach open water it is necessary (except at exceptional high spring tides) to follow the torturous, winding channel of the estuary around the immense banks of mud that lie hidden but are revealed in glistening glory twice a day and night, as the water pours out into the sea. These mudbanks, if not sighted or avoided by following the green -- starboard -- and red -- porthand -- buoys and the imagined curves of the channel, are constant hazards for mariners and indeed it is all too easy to go aground and suffer the indignity of watching the water go out even further so that you and your boat may be left high and dry atop the mud, the true course of the channel revealed at low water to be miles (or sometimes only feet) from where you’ve ended up. Going out on the ebb -- say one or two hours after high water -- always adds a considerable frisson of excitement to the start of a passage, for should you go aground at this time, it is quite possible to have to wait a whole day for the water to go out and then come back in again.
Once Lympstone has been safely negotiated, and you’ve headed down to Starcross and around Cockle Sand to Exmouth, it’s all pretty much plain sailing, provided that is that you continue to follow the well-marked channel. It might be tempting, for those who don’t know these waters, on leaving the mouth of the Exe through the narrow gap formed by the tip of Dawlish Warren to the west and Exmouth harbour to the east, to assume, at high water, that you can simply turn out to open sea. In fact, a narrow but treacherous spit of sand extends opposite Exmouth beach for a further two miles or so, and thus the journey down channel continues until, once past the pleasure beaches, the donkey rides, the amusement arcades on shore, and around the red sandstone cliffs towards Sandy Bay, the Bell Buoy is reached, a notable seamark indicating for both large ships and tiny pleasure craft alike the commencement of clear water and open sea.
The passage from the Bell Buoy to the Orestone, a jagged rock that lies just offshore where Hope’s Nose comes down to the sea, marking the northernmost part of Torbay, is approximately ten nautical miles from the Bell Buoy and we sailed across without incident. Last year, by the Bell Buoy we came across a shoal of dolphins who playfully swam around our boat, leaping and frolicking as we carved through the water. And on the day of the total eclipse, we’d sailed some ten miles offshore from Torbay and came across a giant thirty foot basking shark, which gave us quite a fright, I can tell you.
Today, however, the wind was light northwesterly. We put the sails up for a time and edged across the bay at a sedate two and a half knots, while listening to the Third Test from Old Trafford [the great Brian Lara was in and went on eventually to score a magnificent century]. But not really enough wind for a decent sail, so time instead for some concerted mackerel fishing.
Fishing for mackerel, in theory, is the easiest thing in the world. You simply throw out a line and wait for the fish to hook themselves. This in fact is about all we do. We use a very basic hand line with a heavy (200 gram) weight, and a line of ‘feathers’ -- brightly coloured, attached to six single barbed hooks. We also have a weighted, winged plastic gizmo on the line that causes it to plunge deeper into the sea while trawling. Speed, we’ve discovered by trial and error, is critical. We’ve never caught anything going faster than three and a half knots, while two and a half seems too slow: but set the throttle at just three knots and as if by magic the mackerel are attracted to the feathers.
It’s a little like watching (or listening to) cricket: you can go through long periods when nothing much seems to happen, then all at once you’re in the thick of it. Kim puts the line out over the stern of the boat, then relaxes sprawled out on the thwart, with just a finger (sometimes a toe) tensioning the line in order to discern any bites. A nibble from a tiddler might produce no more than just a tiny and almost indiscernible jiggle on the line, while a bite from a whopper results in a considerable jerk that would wake Kim up should she happen to nod off (which happens from time to time).
When the fish bites, Kim now resists the urge immediately to wind in the line eagerly as too many ‘big ones that got away’ have managed to throw their hooks and escape. Also, should one fish bite there is a good chance that, on a line of feathers, you might hook another and even another. Pulling in a line with as many as four or five glistening, struggling mackerel on it is a truly great experience! Indeed, one fish or many, as you slowly wind in the line by hand there comes that exciting moment when you see through the dark waters a beautiful, quick moving flash -- or better still, two or more flashes -- of silver, darting this way and that, now near the surface, now deep down and nearly under the boat, before the line is fully wound in, and you can lift the fish up and in to the waiting bucket.
The mackerel is a truly beautiful fish, compact and round with a fine pointed head, its body decorated with blue-green stripes or mottles, glistening metallic silver sides, and a sleek white belly. As we pull the fish into the boat, wriggling on the end of the hook, there is, we must confess, always a certain pang of sadness -- not mere sentimentality but an inevitable awareness at least that we are ending a living creature’s life. Indeed, I remember, some years ago when our son Guy was no more than two or three years old, we were similarly fishing. We’d been at it unsuccessfully for some hours, and the little fellow was desperate to catch something. Suddenly a bite! We reeled in a beaut -- as big a mackerel as I’ve ever caught, before or since, glistening with drops of sea water as it wriggled and struggled. Mmmnnn, I thought, there’s some pinhead oatmeal in the store cupboard, dip the fish in a little milk, dredge with the oatmeal, and pan-fry in butter or bacon fat....God, I could almost taste it! But then I looked down at my son who could not take his eyes off the beautiful, struggling fish. ‘What do you want to do, Guy?’, I asked. His eyes, to my astonishment, were full of tears. Only three years old and able to pronounce life or death. ‘Give it his freedom, Dad,’ said the little lad, with no hesitation. And so reluctantly we let the fish glide back into the water and watched our dinner disappear into the depths. We did not fish again for some years after that.
Fortunately Guy, who is now 12 and adores eating fish, no longer takes his perfectly understandable sensitivities to such extremes: for he has come to appreciate that really fresh mackerel is as fine a fish as you will ever eat, bar none. And yet, mackerel remains one of the cheapest fish around, so little valued that, down here at least, it is often sold as bait for fishermen to catch bigger fry. I wonder why this is so? If scarcity adds value to foodstuffs, the converse is that foods that are widely available may not always be fully appreciated. Some centuries ago, salmon apparently was so common that it formed part of the staple diet, and a monotonous one it was by all accounts. Yet in recent decades, overfishing had led to such a decline in wild salmon that it thus became an expensive delicacy. Today fish farming has brought the price of salmon way down once more, to such a degree that its appearance on the table may bring, as in times gone, inward groans of ‘oh no, not salmon AGAIN.’ Strange.
Mackerel, though, is another kettle of fish. The reason I think it is undervalued is not solely because it is common, but primarily because it is only really exceptional when eaten just out of the water. Like Ohio sweetcorn, which deteriorates in flavour within hours of being picked (as the sugars in the corn convert to starch), mackerel is glorious when consumed straight away. But its flavour rapidly deteriorates: a day old fish may still be good (if rarely great), but any longer than this and the flavour is frankly mediocre at best, strong and unpleasant at worst. This is not the case with all fish, and indeed many premium species, including john dory, sea bass (line caught not netted and certainly not farmed), and flat fish such as Dover sole, lemon sole, plaice and brill, while best as fresh as possible, can still maintain their fine flavours and textures after even after a day or two out of the water.
But not mackerel, and therefore I conjecture that it is for this reason the fish remains undervalued: quite simply because many fish lovers may never have tasted this great fish straight out of the water. If this is indeed the case, and considering that mackerel is widely caught all around the British Isles and that no where is too far from the coast, I urge you immediately to seek out those fish stalls by coastal harbours or on the beach (around here, for example, at Exmouth, Sidmouth, Beer) where only that which is on offer is the catch landed that day. Or better still, get out in a boat and catch some mackerel for yourself.
We never take any more fish than we can eat ourselves on the day. Frozen mackerel, even when gutted and popped straight in the deep freeze, is quite simply not worth the effort, and as I’ve already said, even day old mackerel is good but never great. A haul of half a dozen fish was just about sufficient for the three of us on our weekend passage to Brixham (Bella does not yet eat fish, though she does adore clams, mussels, squid).
On arrival in the marina, I set up the boat barbecue on the transom ‘pushpit’, lit the charcoal fire, and quickly cleaned the fish on the marina pontoon. (Mackerel are the easiest fish to clean as they require no scaling and have no sharp fins to remove.) When the fire had died down sufficiently and the coals were white hot, I simply laid out the cleaned fish on the grill, sprinkled liberally with coarse rock salt. Nothing else, not even so much as a squeeze of lemon. A couple of minutes a side, no more.
The enjoyment of simple foods is often anticipated keenly by the smells that emanate during cooking, never more so than with grilled fish: the slightly burnt, acrid aromas of charred skin and flesh, the oily juices of the mackerel splattering onto the hot coals, gave rise to a smoky scent drifting over the waters of the marina that was simply irresistible.
And the flavour: exquisite, the crisp, charred skin and crunchy rock salt a contrast to the softer, full-flavoured, seafresh meat of the mackerel, not strong or coarse in the least, but fine, even delicate, and requiring nothing more than a swallow or two of well-chilled Pinot Grigio, and a slice of bread to mop up the juices.
Food this simple and this fresh simply cannot be beat.

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