Elegantly-Formed, Beautifully-Coloured

“Mackerel,” writes Isabella Beeton in her 1861 book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, “is not only one of the most elegantly-formed, but one of the most beautifully-coloured fishes…” She goes on to explain the seasonality of mackerel in the British Isles as primarily a spring and summer fish – listing harbors by month when it is available off the coast of England and Scotland.

Seasonal cooking is something that Mrs. Beeton stresses, providing nearly every recipe with a note of when the ingredients are available and the dish is best to cook. In fact, she has a section in one of her 1861 introductory chapters, on the duties of the Housekeeper, beginning with the quote below, followed by a month-by-month list.

TO BE ACQUAINTED WITH THE PERIODS when things are in season, is one of the most essential pieces of knowledge which enter into the “Art of Cookery.” We have, therefore, compiled the following list, which will serve to show for every month in the year the TIMES WHEN THINGS ARE IN SEASON.

By the 1907 edition (originally published in 1906, but reprinted in 1907 – the latter available from Internet Archive), the list had changed to “Calendar of Food in Season”, but contained virtually the same text as the original edition, listing the following categories by month: meat, fish, poultry, game, vegetables and fruit.

Because mackerel is in season at the moment here in Britain, I’m including one of Mrs. Beeton’s recipes for simple “broiled” mackerel as a contribution to The Cookbook Guru who is reviewing Mrs. Beeton’s book this month. Amongst her fresh mackerel recipes – baked, boiled and broiled; filleted and fried – Beeton includes a (rather macabre) story on the “voracity” of the mackerel, of a British sailor who went swimming, unwittingly, in water where there was a school of young mackerel. The sailor emerged only to “perish” shortly thereafter. I’m afraid you’ll have to read the original to get the gruesome details. Victorian sensibilities and attitudes towards death were much different than they are today, and it seems Mrs. Beeton saw no ambiguity in including this story in a book on food!


Grilled Mackerel with a Lemon-Parsley Sauce
After reading through the instructions in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, I decided that her “broiled” with its “clear fire” could be easily translated to grilling on the barbecue. Both the 1861 and the 1907 recipes (the latter shown below) are nearly the same. The only difference is the use of foil (1861) versus paper (1907) as an option to wrap the fish. Maître d’Hôtel sauce served with the fish is simply a creamy, buttery lemon and parsley sauce, widely used with a number of fish, meat and vegetable dishes listed throughout the book. It is more involved than the actual fish, but can be made ahead of time and reheated. Results on the taste-test are listed below the recipes.


  • medium-sized mackerel (1 fish will feed 2 people)
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Oil

Light the coals on your barbecue and prepare fish while you are waiting for the coals get up to heat. First, however, measure out pieces of foil – each to hold one fish – and lightly oil.

Gut the fish and remove gills, but keep the head and tail on. Wipe it clean. (I disregarded the instructions and ran the fish under cold water before patting it down and drying.) With a sharp knife, cut down the back; this will aid in filleting when cooked. Rub the fish all over with oil (I used a light olive oil) using your hands. Place on the oiled foil and season with salt and pepper – in the cavity as well.


Seal the foil packet. Once the coals are burning, place the fish packets on the the grill. Turn occasionally. The fish will take about 15 minutes total to cook.


Open the packet, and remove the fillets from the bones. Serve with a warm Lemon-Parsley Sauce and garnish with more parsley.


Lemon-Parsley Sauce (Maître d’Hôtel Sauce)
Mrs. Beeton would almost certainly have used curly parsley as she remarks on the herb: “There are several varieties,—the plain-leaved and the curled-leaved, celery-parsley, Hamburg parsley, and purslane. The curled is the best, and, from the form of its leaf, has a beautiful appearance on a dish as a garnish.” In modern terms: flat-leaf or Italian parsley, curly parsley, celery leaf, root parsley, and purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which is not really a parsley, but an edible succulent that had become popular in Victorian times. I’ve modified the cooking instructions slightly and increased the herbs, lemon and parsley for more zing.

  • 7 Tablespoons chilled butter (1 Tablespoon + 3/4 stick or 6 Tablespoons)
  • 1 Tablespoon flour
  • 1-1/4 cup milk
  • bouquet garni: 6 to 8 sprigs of thyme, 1 bay leaf, parsley stems tied together
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 shallot
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 3 Tablespoons curly parsley, chopped

Make your bouquet garni by cutting off the stems of the parsley that will be used later in the recipe. Lay the parsley stems, the bay leaf and the fresh sprigs of thyme on a piece of kitchen-quality string (sometimes called butcher’s twine) and tie into a bundle, Place the herb bundle, the peppercorns, the milk, and the coarsely cut shallot in a saucepan and bring up to a gentle simmer.


On the lowest possible heat, using a heat diffuser if you have one, let the milk simmer for 30 minutes with the lid on. Take it off the heat and strain the liquid, discarding the herbs and shallot. Clean the saucepan for the next step.

Take 1 tablespoon of the butter and melt in the cleaned saucepan, but do not let it brown. Sprinkle on the flour and and stir until the butter has completely coated the flour and gradually pour in the infused milk. Gently cook for about 10 minutes, stirring or whisking occasionally to make sure the sauce stays smooth and lump-free. Add the cayenne pepper and take off the heat. This part of the sauce can be made in advance and warmed up before the next step.

Cut the remaining 6 Tablespoons of butter into small cubes. In a saucepan, warm your creamy sauce, slowly add butter, a cube at a time, stirring or whisking constantly. Turn off heat and add the chopped parsley and the juice from the lemon. Adjust seasoning by adding salt if needed.

The fish was nice and tender cooked in the foil, but I missed that char-grilled flavor normally associated with barbecue. Also, the subtleties of the sauce were lost on the fish, but I could see it would be good on bland vegetables such as boiled new potatoes. General consensus was that simple grilled fish with lemon and a good aromatic herb (thyme or oregano come to mind) would have been much better.


More Beeton Mackerel Trivia:
Mrs. Beeton originally included three commentaries interspersed with her recipes for mackerel: (#1) on the description and seasonality of the mackerel, (#2) on the “voracity” of the mackerel, both mentioned above, and (#3) on the Roman production of the fermented fish sauce known as garum. These little asides or commentaries were changed in the later edition – published well after Isabella Beeton’s death. The later Edwardian volume was edited and expanded by Mr. C. Herman Senn, the head chef at the National Training School of Cookery, assisted by an unspecified number of other “celebrated” chefs and cookery teachers. The 1907 edition only included one aside (printed below) which merged two of those from 1861 – (#1) and (#3) – and, not surprisingly, deleted the sad story (#2) of the doomed British sailor. At least one detail was garbled from the original – the sarum referred to in the text below is garum which the Romans fermented from the guts of any number of fish (anchovies, mackerel, tuna, sardines, etc.), not a sauce produced from mackerel fat. In addition, under general observations of sauces and gravies, the 1907 edition offers another bit of misinformation, defining garum as a sauce made from anchovy brine – misinterpreting Beeton’s vague, but plausibly consistent original comment on anchovies that garum was made from the “liquor” of that fish. In the 1861 edition, to give her credit, Mrs. Beeton correctly described the fermenting process for Roman garum production in the aside immediately after her recipe for pickled mackerel. The mangled text of the later edition looks like an example of too many cooks in the kitchen – or, more precisely, too many cooks editing a cookbook!

* * *

“THE MACKEREL (Fr. maquereau) is not only one of the most elegantly shaped, but one of the most beautifully coloured of the fish that frequent our coasts. The characteristic metallic lustre of its body is familiar to all. The mackerel is a migratory fish, and visits in enormous shoals the coasts of England in May and June,and those of Scotland in July and August. It is captured by means of drift nets, in which it is caught by entangling its head in the meshes. The mackerel spawns in May and June. The Romans were acquainted with this fish, and made from its fat the celebrated sarum, or relish. The mackerel rarely exceeds the weight of 2 lb.; its ordinary length is between 14 and 20 inches. When taken out of the water it dies immediately, and for a short time emits a phosphorescent light.”
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1907)



    • I had my qualms about posting. I liked the mackerel and the sauce, just not together. Used the leftover sauce for a potato gratin (really yummy!) and next time I grill mackerel, I’ll lose the foil. Gotta have that char grilled taste!


      • Always good to experiment together and report on the not so successful results as much as the good ones I think. I love the idea of the sauce on the potatoes and totally agree about grilling fish. Mind you Mum swears by poaching fish in paper parcels with some herbs, in particular salmon and barramundi. 🙂


  1. Reblogged this on The Cookbook Guru and commented:
    The Kitchen Witch has provided us with another beautiful and simple recipe from Mrs Beeton’s cookbook for this month’s The Cookbook Guru. This time she has cooked mackeral in the style of Mrs Beeton with a Maitre d’Hotel Sauce. Make sure that you check out the wonderful stories that Mrs Beeton shares about this fish.


  2. Fantastic post. From reading Mrs B’s recipes I get the sense that most food in Victorian England was “subtly” seasoned. Not sure if this arose because of cost, availability or taste. Mackerel is wonderful fish, and I think very forgiving because of it’s oiliness, it does carry BBQ char very well. I think the severe editing of the asides robs later editions of Mrs B’s book of a great deal of it’s charm, especially now we are reading it 150 years later.


    • I think you and I would agree with Elizabeth David when she said the “bossy voice” of Mrs. Beeton in the first edition was the best part and she was sad to see it lost in later editions. I also think that tastes change. The moment I tasted the sauce, I remembered it from very vague childhood memories of dining out in a fussy old-fashioned hotel with my grandparents. Next time the mackerel is going directly on the grill, loaded with aromatics and given a good dose of lemon juice at the end.


      • I think the greatest influence on our taste, expectations and diet has been migration and travel. The Victorian cook was limited by the food within the boundaries of her reach. There are no boundaries now….


        • True, but in Victorian times, the products of the British Empire flowed into London – as did immigrant communities – all of this had an affect on availability and knowledge of “exotics”. But, you are right, there is a greater mobility of a wide spectrum of people who are exposed to different ways of doing things. And now, of course, there is the internet and blogging community…


    • It is a beautiful fish. My father used to fish for them – on holiday at the shore – and when freshly caught, they are even more spectacularly blue and silver. It’s an oily fish and responds well to the barbecue. Grilling fresh mackerel is one of summer’s little pleasures!


  3. Fantastic post, as always MKW. Historically fascinating. A really under utilised fish in these here parts. I think it’s oily, firm flesh pairs well with stronger flavours like tomatoes, citrus, basil, vinegar, olives, spices etc. And agreed, great grilled or BBQ’d. Back in my food marketing heyday at Sydney Fish Market, it was a hard sell.


    • It is a very popular fish here – as well as sardines/pilchards (another oily fish). I guess more people are eating more oily fish because they’ve been told it is good for them – and it is generally cheaper. Most people barbecue mackerel with lots of herbs and lemon. This is how I prefer it, anyway. You are right, best with strong flavours. I’ve even seen mackerel fillets wrapped in streaky bacon – but that might counteract the “healthy” properties of the fish!


      • He he…how does the saying go? Bacon makes everything taste better! (I guess unless you are vegetarian like my hubby). Sardines/pilchards have become more popular. People will eventually cotton on to those fantastic omega 3’s and also (hopefully) sustainability. 🙂


    • There really is so much history revolving around food in Mrs. B. I find it fascinating. And, copies of the work are freely available for download. Benefits all around.


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