Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pan-fried mackerel fillets in oatmeal

Apart from the opportunity to drink real beer, one of the things I love in Edinburgh is shopping at the farmers' market. This may seem a bit odd, as I live next door to the central market in Cadiz. Visitors to Spain are always impressed by the market, and rightly so. It has an incredible range of really fresh fish, and also has loads of fruit and veg, butchers, a superb olive stall, a couple of stalls selling snails and fresh herbs, spices, a baker, and so on. In short, it's a great place to shop and I am really grateful to have it on my doorstep.

However, forcing my way through the crowds as I fill up my shopping trolley is not always the most relaxing experience. (And even more so as the old market is currently being refurbished and the stallholders have been temporarily crammed into a large marquee.) Another problem is that, because the stalls are generally not owned by the producers, they tend to duplicate each other. The butchers' section, for example, consists of about 20 different stalls, but they sell more or less the same things, at more or less the same prices. (Fortunately, there is one butcher who sells his own produce, and who has supplied me with some of the most delicious beef I have ever eaten.)

The farmers' market movement in the United Kingdom was inspired by outdoor markets in France rather than those in Spain, and I had always suspected that this involved a bit of mythologising, as is often the case when people in the UK talk about eating habits in other countries. On our journey back from Cadiz to Edinburgh at the beginning of this summer, we stopped off for a few days at Annecy (in the Haute-Savoie department, on the Swiss border), to visit our friend Catherine and her daughter Alice, who had been spending a year in France. It was my first time in France since a holiday there as a 15 year-old, and I loved it. There was the strangely enjoyable experience of being somewhere where I didn't speak the language (including asking for a 'minced' loaf, rather than a sliced one, in the baker's), there was superb bread, croissants and pastries, and cured meat, and there was a great farmers' market, which was surprisingly similar to the Edinburgh one. (If anything, the Annecy one felt a little more touristy, and less down-to-earth. Click here for some photos taken at both markets.)

At a purely physical level, arriving in France direct from Spain felt like entering the Thinnifer Republic after a spell in the Fattypuff Kingdom. (A sensation which was felt even more sharply in reverse when flying up to Scotland from Geneva Airport. I made it to the departure gate with Sammy and Carmela, looked around and realised that I was surrounded by fat people reading books. Welcome to the UK - we're fat, and we read!) Hardly anyone in Annecy was fat. I'm not sure if the reason is healthy eating, frantic exercising, obsessive dieting or whether chubbies are quietly removed from their streets and turned into saucisson. (Or perhaps just too scared to go out in the first place.) My grandfather, Sam, who had a fair-sized belly, used to love visiting the States in the 1970s because he felt normal there, and being a bit of a Thinifer I had much the same feeling in France. Unlike the Thinifers, however, I do not subsist on a diet of dry spaghetti. (Spain, while not close to challenging Scotland for the title of fat man of Europe, does a pretty impressive line in adipose adolescents and bulging 20-somethings. Obesity crisis in the making?)

What I really like about the Edinburgh farmers' market is the stallholders' enthusiasm for their products, and the fact that you are always likely to come across something new. Although each stall is quite specialised this seems to act as a spur to innovation, so the raspberry and strawberry stall has an incredible range of different jams and chutneys, in addition to the obvious cuts, the venison stall also sells venison sausages, haggis and pies, and smoked venison, and so on.

When I went to the market today, the guest cook at the Slow Food Edinburgh stall, the chef from Creelers, was cooking mackerel in oatmeal. (This is the traditional way of cooking herring in Scotland, and I suspect it would also work well with the fresh anchovies I sometimes buy in Cadiz.) It's really simple to make, but the fish must be spanking fresh, and you must fry in butter rather than oil. I copied the man from Creelers and used stoats porridge oats bought at the neighbouring stall and containing a mix of rolled and flaked oats. The traditional recipe for herring would use pinhead oatmeal, soaked overnight.

4 large or 8 small mackerel fillets
plenty of butter
porridge oats


  1. Spread plenty of porridge oats on a plate, and season with salt. Coat the mackerel with the oats. (The fillets should not be too dry, to help the oats stick to them, although even so the coating will be uneven.)
  2. Heat plenty of butter in a large frying pan, and fry the mackerel fillets in it, turning once. They will cook quickly so a couple of minutes per side should be long enough.

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