A Fine Kettle of Fish

January 30, 2014

If anyone ever calls me ‘sardonic’ – assuming they don’t mean I look like a fish – I’d almost take it as a compliment.

I love fish talk. You can almost smell the turns of phrase devoted to fish: A big fish in a small pond; crooked as a barrel of fish hooks; drink like a fish; fish in troubled waters; having bigger fish to fry; like shooting fish in a barrel; plenty more fish in the sea; like a fish out of water.

And my favourite – which is also shared in Italian – neither fish nor fowl. Does this mean it’s not a ‘surf n turf’?

A high school friend used to say that someone had “a smile like a deep sea mullet”. Cracked me up, but I’ve never heard that expression since.

A couple of evocative expressions belong to one of my favourite fish, the highly (in some quarters) unfashionable mackerel.

There’s a mackerel sky…

mackerel sky

And a mackerel tabby cat… 

mackerel cat

Vincent van Gogh thought enough of mackerel to paint them in his lovely Still Life with Mackerels, Lemons and Tomatoes

Van Gogh Mackerels  

The Portuguese do a damn fine job of canning them

tinned mackerel

And ‘Holy Mackerel, Batman’ says it all.

The word mackerel may be derived from the Old French maquerel (c.1300) meaning a pimp or procurer and as the fish species spawns enthusiastically near coastal areas, it’s plausible.

My family’s always been big mackerel eaters and bought it from Trieste’s glorious waterfront fish market, an imposing 1913 structure with a bell tower. Nicknamed Santa Maria del Guato, it was the Adriatic city’s shrine to fish of all denominations.

Here in Sydney we bought our fish from less salubrious fishmongers. We cooked our mackerel on my father’s jerry-built brick BBQ and although not a pretty piece of handywork it did the trick. The whole mackerel were cooked until slightly charred and then the laborious de-boning process began. That was my mother’s job and she patiently be-headed and opened the fish and picked them clean. Bone by bone. They was then seasoned, sprinkled with chopped garlic and parsley and spread with a layer of home-made mayonnaise.

Last week I found some super fresh smallish blue mackerel at the fish markets, chock full of Omega-E fats and sustainable in Australia. Simply grilled with a squeeze of lemon, they were a knockout. And I’m not fishing for compliments.

Grilled Mackerel

Neil Perry is a mackerel fan too and does a nice pan fried version with a spicy sauce. http://www.lifestylefood.com.au/recipes/300/pan-fried-mackerel

Related posts:

Working out for our Mussels – http://tinyurl.com/kf3go8m

Spanish Cuttlefish with Italian Attitude – http://tinyurl.com/mxkqbuv


  1. Are you fishing for compliments…?

    • Nah. As long as it doesn’t sound like a load of codswallop

  2. Very entertaining story, Ambra Did the little mackerel have many bones?

    • The smaller mackerel weren’t too bad. Generally the larger ones (about 30 cm) have quite a lot. I think fish with bones put a lot of people off cooking/eating them, which is a shame.

      • I think you’re right. Too many restaurant meals spent pulling tiny bones out of my mouth, the occasional one getting through to stick in the throat, spoiled the dining experience and prompted me to avoid such choices…

      • Too many bones and I say forget it even though I know it is a tasty fish. Since I live on the coast also, we have many fish markets that do most of the work for you. I wish they could debone mackerel because I understand it is a very good tasting fish and so good for you.

  3. Used to catch bountiful mackerel in Scotland when I was little. Seem to remember they were either cooked in vinegar in the oven or rolled in oatmeal and fried. Delicious, though.
    Lovely post as ever – liked the photos!

    • Thanks Colin. Mackerel rolled in oatmeal sounds intriguing – those crazy Scots. I think that it’s being fished out in the NE Atlantic. Shame. I had some lovely mackerel in a Japanese restaurant in Surry Hills – coated in sesame seeds and flash fried and soused with a piquant sauce. Loving your show on Radio National btw.

  4. You’ve inspired me! I’m definitely going to serve mackerel one of these nights.. and as always, another great read – thanks!

    • Thanks Sandi. I hope you serve mackerel Sandi – it’s one of the most under-valued fish. Are you still blogging? Hope Mosaic Republic is going well.

  5. Another excellent piece of writing combining knowledge, humour and a good old family anecdote! i haven’t heard of the mackerel expressions – love them both. I love the saying that someone “looks like a stunned mullet” …. i hadn’t heard of that one until i arrived in Australia. We’ve inherited a jerry-built brick BBQ with our house … have been thinking of knocking it down. Only used it once and it smoked the hell out of the neighbours back yard … guess you had to grow up with one to know how to use it! Great post.

  6. Thanks Rachel. There’s certainly some weird n wonderful fishy expressions to be had. Ah yes, smoking BBQs – gone are the days when you could practically have a bonfire in your own backyard every weekend. Fun times!

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