Scomber scombrus: Mackerel live in the deep seas in winter, but come to the shores in great numbers in May, and again in August. The first season coincides with the wealth of herbs, which all go so well with the fish’s fine, tasty flesh.
Mackerel are not as popular as fresh fish as they deserve to be, but the craving for true Scandinavian food is putting them back on the menu once again.
Appearance and taste
Mackerel is a small tuna fish, with very dark, fatty meat. It’s a beauty when alive, clad in an haute couture dress of graphic black pattern on a silvery blue background. It is not severely threatened at the time of writing, even if it is a very popular fish. The flesh is loose when cooked or smoked.
Buying and storing
Like most oily fish, mackerel will develop very high levels of histamine if not kept properly cool, or if too old. Make sure your mackerel is very fresh and is stored at a low temperature, and eat it straight away. If you need to keep the fish overnight, pre-salt it rather heavily and keep it in the fridge.
Mackerel is always a wild fish, containing large amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin B.
Mackerel takes wonderfully to spices, curing and smoking as the meaty taste can work through anything. Fresh mackerel is perfect for grilling as some of the excess fat drains away. The combination of mackerel and gooseberry sauce, which takes the edge off the fish’s fattiness, is legendary. But rhubarb compote or horseradish cream work well too.
In the north, mackerel is mostly hot smoked, and tastes delicious eaten on rye bread with raw egg yolks, radishes, chives, raw onion and scrambled eggs. But it is also a perfect and very cheap alternative to gravid lax, or indeed can be soused like herring.
Most of the mackerel eaten in Scandinavia is actually canned, in tomato sauce, which makes an extremely popular sandwich filling with mayonnaise, on rye bread.
Grilled mackerel with gooseberries and elderflowers
4 whole mackerel
4 tablespoons coarse sea salt
10 large elderflower heads
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 red chili, seeds removed, chopped
2 fresh garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Butter, for frying
Serve with gooseberry compote with elderflowers
The combination of gooseberries and elderflowers is, of course, a classic. So too is the pairing of mackerel and gooseberries, and not only in Scandinavia. Here we have gone to extremes by combining all three, but the result is pure Scandinavian midsummer bliss. Serve with lemon and new potatoes. Pre-salting (see below) the mackerel makes it firmer and tastier.
Hut the fish, but leave the heads on. Slash each fish three times om both sides with a very sharp knife. Using 3 tablespoons of the coarse sea salt, rub the fish inside and out, then leave to rest for a couple of hours in a cool place. After that time clean off the salt under a cold tap, then dry the fish completely with kitchen paper.
Cut the white flowers from the green stems of the elderflower heads and mix with the remaining salt, plus the lemon, zest, chili, garlic and black pepper. Fill the fish with this heady mixture. Either fry the fish in hot butter until nicely browned – 4 minutes on each side is fine for a small mackerel – or grill them on a barbecue. Turn the fish only once, as they are tender-fleshed. Serve with the compote.
Scandinavian Mackerel, Written by Tor Kjolberg