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As I write this, in the early hours of Boxing Day, I’ve just begun reading Giles Coren’s ‘How to eat out’. He begins with a haze of nostalgia, describing early dining experiences with his father in the 1970s. And it got me thinking. On Christmas Eve, my dad and I went to Cardiff Market to buy our meat for the following day. A turkey, a pheasant and a jar of goose fat. I visit the market a few times a month, usually to buy a whole fish for dinner, but I sometimes buy records from upstairs or a rabbit for a dinner party: nowhere else sells them anymore.
On these fleeting visits, the market is always populated but slimly so: a small gaggle of tourists shuffling about, the odd stoner loitering at the rizla shop… but it changes at Christmas. People seem to yearn for tradition, to claw back what their parents taught them. The accents of the market previously dominated by the sharp Cardiff twang, the sole property of the working class, expand to include a more informed RP. These folk might stroll about in Waitrose every other weekend of the year, but they swear by this place at Christmas. And why not?
As we dart through the crowds, my dad and I coo at enormous ribs of beef and pigs heads: stacked as a reminder to the desensitized punter that this is what they are eating. We buy a huge turkey and wander over to the fishmongers to grab a pheasant. The young boy at the fish counter gives my dad his change, inadvertently dropping a five pence piece amongst the salmon. He plucks it from the ice and drops it into his hand. You don’t get that at Tesco.
But it is Christmas no longer. The New Year demands a respite from gluttony and excess. One can pick up all that is needed for a light supper in the market just as easily as it is possible to shop for a feast. The ancient Fishmongers can boast all the huge Scottish salmon, fatty tuna and copper crabs that it likes: there is only one fish for me. Still in rigor mortis on the ice, mackerel is one of the most versatile fish there is.
The palate must surely be a sedated thing after the swathes of meat and cheese that Christmas demands. Luckily, this hugely healthy fish takes on a variety of flavours with ease. The recipe below is easily adaptable, serving perhaps as a basis from which one’s own ideas can flourish. Ask for the mackerel filleted if unsure and place on a chopping board.
The following spices can be used either fresh or in their dried form; such is the adaptability of the fish. Take a little garlic, a little chilli and ginger and the zest of a lime and rub the flesh of the fish with the mixture. The skin should be left alone: this will crisp beautifully in the pan. Using the juice of the lime isn’t advisable as it will begin to cook the fish, as with a South American ceviche.
Leave the fish for as little as half an hour or as long as 24 hours. The longer it marinates, the more pungent the result. Preheat a pan with a little oil and lay the fish, skin side down, into the pan. 90% of the cooking should occur on the skin side so as to maintain a crisp skin and moist flesh. After around 5 minutes the fish will be cooked, and is best served with a noodle stir fry or in wraps with a little homemade guacamole.