With its sparkling, silvery belly and iridescent blue-grey stripes, the mackerel is an eye-catching fish, almost showy. It's bound to be the subject of enviously dismissive gossip amongst shoals of less flashy sardine and cod.
The mackerel isn't a delicately flavoured fish and its richness doesn't always lend itself well to a simple 'lemon and herbs' pairing. But given the right treatment it is a fantastically moist, flavoursome fish that makes an inexpensive and very healthy meal.
The mackerel has been a consistently popular fish throughout European history. The Romans used mackerel to make garum, a fermented fish sauce similar to those essential to Thai and Vietnamese cooking today.
Records show that the mackerel has been widely eaten in the UK for hundreds of years. According to his diary, Samuel Pepys breakfasted on mackerel on 30th May 1660. Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) features the recipe Fennel Sauce for Mackerel.
The mackerel is an oceanic fish that swims in very large shoals. The variety Scomber scombrus is a common fish in North Atlantic and Mediterranean waters. Several other varieties are found in the Indo-Pacific and are an important food source in Thailand and the Phillippines.
Look for mackerel with shiny bodies and bright eyes. They should be firm-feeling and rigid; fresh mackerel won't droop if held horizontally by the head. The freshest specimens are likely to be found in good fishmongers or markets. After buying mackerel be sure to keep it cool until you get home.
Use the Good Fish Guide to make better informed choices when buying seafood.
Oily fish spoil faster than white fish and mackerel is best eaten on the day of purchase or within 24 hours if kept chilled. It can also be frozen successfully.
Ask your fishmonger to gut the fish. At home, wash under cold running water and pat dry before cooking. Baking, grilling, barbecuing, or pan-frying are excellent cooking methods. To check if mackerel is cooked, slit the fish at the thickest part with a small knife: the flesh should appear just opaque but still moist.
Due to mackerel's richness, cream or butter-based sauces are best avoided. A spicy treatment works well, as does matching with something sharp. Gooseberry or rhubarb sauces are traditional accompaniments, or try experimenting with citrus flavours such as ortanique or pomelo.
A 22 year old Picasso doodled an 'erotic' drawing called The Mackerel, which you can see here.