In the second of an exclusive series for Spectator Life, Louise Gray describes how she spent a year only eating animals she killed herself
The mackerel usually arrive off the coast of Scotland just in time for Wimbledon. It is our family tradition to go down to Ethie Haven, a fishing hamlet on the north east coast and take a well-loaded boat puttering under the cliffs. The smallest of children can manage a hand-held line to hoik out the glittering shoals of mackerel, to squeals of excitement. Papa wops them on the head (the fish not the grandchildren), guts the mackerel in the sea and then we all go home and watch our boy, Andy Murray, win, again.
It is not only a deeply satisfying afternoon, but a good way to catch protein. Fish provide some of our most important nutrients, such as omega 3s – that are especially good for a growing child’s brain.
It is also delicious and at certain times of year, like when the mackerel come into the North Sea to feed, embarrassingly easy to catch. So, when I set out to spend a year only eating animals I killed myself, I knew fish would be on the menu. As I described in my first column in this series, shooting fluffy mammals like rabbits was difficult. Perhaps it is not rational, but killing a cold-blooded scaly creature was somehow easier.
The environmental justification was far harder. My predecessor as the main environmental writer at The Daily Telegraph Charles Clover wrote extensively about the overfishing of the oceans in his book, The End of the Line. I was aware that three-quarters of the world’s fish stocks are being exploited at, or well beyond, sustainable limits. In Europe as a whole more than 80 per cent of fisheries are overfished. Scientists have warned that we may soon be eating jellyfish burgers if we are not more careful to protect our fish stocks.
I visited Europe’s largest white fish market in Peterhead, Aberdeen, to see what is being done to try and bring this dangerous situation under control. Firstly, I was surprised to find that most of the fish was being exported, as we in the UK import more than half of our fish from abroad, principally Iceland and China.
Secondly, the variety on offer was startling – more than forty species come through the market. Thankfully, some species are now being fished sustainably. Technology such as GPS, that was once used to overfish the ocean, is being used to keep tabs on fishing boats so they stick to a strict quota. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have already identified North Sea haddock and mackerel as a sustainable population that is healthy enough to renew under a certain level of fishing. It is hoped North Sea cod may be given the label soon.
But it means changing the way we eat fish. The MSC label is easy to identify in any supermarket. The Marine Conservation Society also provide a useful app so you can see which species of fish are endangered. We could also widen the kind of fish that we eat. At the moment in the UK we rely on just five species: Cod, haddock, prawns, salmon and tuna. How boring. Sustainable fish include pollock, pouting and cockles.
Even better go sea-angling yourself. More than four million people in this country count angling as a hobby. There are plenty of boats offering day trips off the British Isles. What better way to catch your own supper, and to teach children where food really is from?
Mackerel baked in oatmeal with gooseberry sauce
4 x whole mackerel
Good slug of olive oil
4 tbsp Oatmeal (I used stoneground Orkney oatmeal from Barony Mill on Birsay – milling in Orkney for over 300 years)
For the sauce: 250g gooseberries, 25g sugar, 1 tsp wholegrain mustard and salt and pepper to taste
Cooking time: Approximately 20 minutes preparation, 25 minutes cooking time.
My step-mother discovered the joy of gooseberries with mackerel after finding a Rick Stein recipe for the fish and stewed green grapes. It was August in the north-east of Scotland and the gooseberries were in season, so she used them instead. It is a heavenly combination.
Mix around 250g of gooseberries with 50g of sugar and place in a saucepan on the hob to come to a simmer while you prepare the mackerel.
Wash the gutted fish and dry with a paper towel. I usually leave the heads on, but decapitated is fine. My nephews like to eat the eyeballs, perhaps as some kind of early masculinity test – I have tried them and they taste like rolled up loo paper, best left alone. Anyway, take the fish and lay them in a baking tray lined in tin foil. Score the top side of the mackerel with three or four diagonal cuts. It is satisfying to see the fish oil seeping out – already some omega 3s for the brain! Coat the fish well in olive oil and then shake oatmeal over both sides of the fish and pop in the oven, scored side up, for 25 minutes. The skin of the fish should crisp at the edges and the oatmeal turn a lovely golden brown.
Take the gooseberry sauce, it should have turned into a thick and chunky puree, and add the mustard, and salt and pepper to taste.
Once the mackerel are done serve with a dollop of gooseberry sauce, some tatties and greens.
I ate so much mackerel during my year only eating only animals I killed myself, I got quite fed up of it. But the addition of tart gooseberries makes the firm flesh of the fish so much more appetising. It reminds me of a Scottish seaside summer, fresh and salty and bright.