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Soused mackerel

Six servings.

Although recipes for soused mackerel make an appearance in virtually every cookbook covering British cuisine, nobody here at britishfoodinamerica has encountered the dish either at home or on the town, except in the house of the Editor. This simple version is descended from Jane Grigson.

Preheat the oven to 275°

-6 fillets
-salt and pepper
-6 oz water
-6 oz malt vinegar
-1 Tablespoon pickling spice or crab boil (see the notes)
-3 bay leaves
-a diced chili
-an onion sliced into thin crescents

  1. Season the fillets with alt and pepper, then roll them, skin side out.
  2. Add everything else to an ovenproof dish that fits the fish fairly snugly in a single layer.
  3. Place the fillets in the dish, cover it with crimped foil and bake it for about an hour and a half.
  4. Chill the souse before serving it.

Final notes:

- Also good, of course, for bluefish.

- Crab boil is a mix of spice from Louisiana that is used for crab and crawfish as well as shrimp boils. It is more robust than commercial pickling spice. All the brands, including Rex and Yogi, are good. It is available both loose and in muslin bags; the bags are handy because the gritty spices do not get into the fish. In any event, however, the loose spice is not so difficult to wipe or rinse away.

- Great British Food, from the people at the London chain of Canteen restaurants, also includes a recipe for soused mackerel. We mention it because the book has recently been reviewed in the critical. The recipe is more involved than Mrs. Grigson’s, but not so involved that it is difficult. The Canteen souse uses cider vinegar instead of the malt and supplements it with Asian spice, a refreshing citrus reduction and some carrot and fennel, this last a perennial favorite of the modernist kitchen.

- You would not want any of our sauces for mackerel with a souse. It amounts to a pickle based on vinegar, and the punch it packs in pucker sacrifices any pretense to subtlety. That is a little, if only a little, exaggerated, for sousing something gives it an acid tang, which, of course, is the entire point with an oily item like mackerel or bluefish. Sauces not only are superfluous with souse but would be subsumed by its assertiveness, awkwardly.

- Maggie Schmitt tells us in The Atlantic (31 March 2010) that sousing, originally ‘escabeche’ or ‘seviche,’ originated in Spain and spread throughout the Atlantic world. She says it was originally a means of preserving small game birds: That makes sense, for they spoil fast and do not benefit from hanging like their larger relatives. Then, unaccountably, Ms. Schmitt decides to publish a recipe for chicken. She is an engaging writer so her whim should be our indulgence, but it is not necessarily the case that preserving flesh with vinegar ‘originated’ anywhere; to our mind it is likelier that sousing developed independently on multiple fronts, because at a primeval level humans understand that a bath of acid preserves the perishable.

- Souse, escabeche and of course the variation ceviche, which unlike its cousins does not entail cooking (nor does ‘caveach,’ an ancient English term for the same technique), obviously do share a linguistic root but enough of that for our immediate purpose.

- Whatever else you have heard, quail are not hard to find in the United States, where they are extensively farmed. They always are on hand for a price from D’Artagnan, and Liu’s Chinese grocery in Westerly, Rhode Island, stocks particularly big and gamey ones, head and feet intact, in the freezer. Frozen quail, which are eminently suitable for sousing (and gumbo) if not roasting, also are available for a pittance, something like two dollars apiece in a sixpack, at several shops in the Newark Ironbound. We therefore offer our readers britishfoodinamerica’s own recipe for soused quail, which relies recklessly on the apple and adds some celery. It is, as Miss Acton might say, A Good Dish.