“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
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!
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“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)