Pan-fried fresh mackerel and whole, boiled potatoes – the old favourite, when you can get it.
Mackerel are capricious. Fishers have always known this. From Dinish to Cape Clear and around to Garinish, mackerel have defined the lives of coastal communities for countless centuries.
Stephen Crane, an American writer who visited Cape Clear in the last years of the 1800s, described the life.
The mackerel, beautiful as fire-etched salvers, were passed to a long table. Each woman could clean a fish with two motions of the knife. Then the washers, men who stood over the troughs filled with running water from the brook, soused the fish …
… the fish were carried to a group of girls with knives, who made the cuts that enabled each fish to flatten out in the manner known of the breakfast table. “After the girls came the men and boys, who rubbed each fish thoroughly with great handfuls of coarse salt, whiter than snow, which shone in the daylight, diamond-like.
Last came the packers, drilled in the art of getting neither too few nor too many mackerel into a barrel, sprinkling constantly prodigal layers of brilliant salt.
In the early 1930s the mackerel disappeared completely. When they returned, the knowledge that had been passed down led the fishers to the fish.
‘The old fishermen always knew the best geographical points to go to to get the mackerel,’ says Mitey McNally, a Garinish fisher, recalling the days when they were plenty. ‘If they weren’t there you’d see the fowls in the water and you’d chase over towards them.’
The fishers used fixed nets anchored to stalls on the seabed at specific points up to 30 feet deep. When the mackerel moved they ran straight into these nets, the force of the fish lifting the nets out of the water.
‘It was a great sight in the morning at dawn when the fish would start to move,’ says Mitey. ‘We caught the fish with netting with a three inch mesh, which ensured all the small mackerel went though it so we caught only the prime fish, the big fine fat mackerel.’
An increasing demand for mackerel was soon met by people who wanted to make big money. Unlike the Garinish fishers whose livelihoods depended on the mackerel, entrepreneurs launched large factory ships and sent them in search of the mackerel in the open sea.
‘Two of these super trawlers would catch in one night what would keep a community as large as this whole parish going for the year,’ says Mitey.
The market for mackerel collapsed in the early 1980s.
These days the mackerel come and go and then when they arrive a few intrepid souls around the coast smoke them for local consumption. The days of salting mackerel are long gone. Canned mackerel was never an Irish thing, despite an attempt to get the people to buy it.
During the summer of 2015 Irish Fish Canners of Dungloe in western Donegal launched their smoked mackerel Irish Atlantic range and one of these days we will tell you their story.
In the meantime, if you can find some fresh mackerel and some good floury potatoes, this is the dish!
- 2 kg potatoes, whole
- 1.2 kg (8) mackerel, whole, gutted, filleted
- 80 g butter, for potatoes
- 80 g butter, for mackerel
- Water, for potatoes
Boil potatoes in their skins. Coat the mackerel with butter and grill (on foil), about five minutes each side or pan-fry in butter with a splash of vegetable oil. Serve on warm plates, with a knob of butter on each potato.
Alternatively get hold of some of the Irish Atlantic peppered smoked mackerel in oil, and serve several cans with mashed potatoes.