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Food Memories: Grilled Mackerel and Pickled Cucumber Salad

by Caroline Grape
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We were suddenly awoken by our mother rushing in at one in the morning. It was pitch-black in our little room and we were completely disoriented. What was going on? What was so urgent? The sea was teaming, heaving, and boiling. We had to get up, she said, the mackerel had come. We quickly pulled on our jumpers and hopped into our wellies. It was that spectacular late-night blue light of the short summer nights, and we saw our dad down on the dock, fishing pole in hand. 

The path to the dock was essentially a steep slope down to the concrete slab my grandfather had built himself. There, we would receive guests across the water, the local kiosk boat would dock to deliver baked goods and newspapers early every morning. We were in the fjords of southern Norway, where cabins can only be reached by boat. As a child, it was a magical place filled with lore and untameable forests. I loved being on the water, wondering at the life that the deep fjord held below the prow of the little white boat my grandfather steered. The days were never-ending, in this Northern Hemisphere that truly comes alive in the summer months. 

So there my father was, poised, watching out across the fjord to spot the steam of mackerel. My sister and I ran down after our mom, picking our way among the rocks in the dark. We watched on the dock as our dad flung the line out across the fjord in the dark, aiming for the boiling spot that was coming closer and closer to us. The mackerel had been pushed up towards the surface in the shallowing inner fjord in their sheer numbers. The effect was spectacular – in the dark, with the moonlight gleaming, the boiling water was snaking its way in intricate organic shapes and forms as the steam maneuvered after their prey: herring. As they did so, our dad strategically picked off the mackerel. Each time he cast his line out, immediately it tugged with a new, fat fish. Each time he did, we squealed in delight. Within the space of twenty short minutes, he’d hauled in thirteen fish. It felt like a dream.

As they were being hauled in, we would help to gut and clean the fish. This was something we were taught early on, and, although a grotesque task, I still reminisce back to those summer days whenever I get the ‘opportunity to’ gut one myself. 

“Be careful of the gallbladder,” my mother would say. I knew what would happen – the little green pouch could tear or leak, filling the interior with a luminous green liquid – rendering the fish immediately stained and virtually inedible. So I would take my time with the sharp knife, my sister beside me, throwing out the remnants to squawking seagulls waiting for a midnight snack, before rinsing the fish in the salty sea. 

In the background, the little white house we all crammed into each summer set the scene. Though the cabin was sparse, with limited electricity and no hot water (we would boil water to do the dishes), we had a small freezer. That summer, it was filled to the brim with fatty mackerel. 

This was a relatively normal occurrence in the summer, when a steam or two of mackerel would pass by towards the beginning of August; the herring at their most frenzied – the favourite meal of mackerel. But that summer was one of the most spectacular; the sheer numbers of the big, meaty fish – we gorged ourselves on them all summer long. 

Norwegian cuisine isn’t the most ground-breaking or flavourful. It is simple, honest cooking meant to feed women, men and their children cheaply, and sustain them through harsh conditions. The country is now wealthy and so palettes begin to shift, but this is recent history. Up until oil was found off the shores of Norway, it was a poor place, with humble origins and meagre natural resources, save for the beauty of the wild landscape. It’s a tough place where nature prevails, from the deep, never-ending winter of the North, down to the slashing rains and winds on the West coast, tapering off to a milder, more temperate climate in only the southernmost tip of the country, around the capital of Oslo. People generally lived off what they could find, or what they could herd and forage that would survive the harsh winters. Along the costs, their diet consisted largely of salt-water fish – everything from whale to mackerel & trout. Inland, meat was the staple, usually semi-wild lamb, mutton, and the few grains and vegetables they could grow in the cold climate. Dairy products were largely made from the milk of the hardy goats that were stalwarts in the mountains. Preservation took the form of salting, curing, and pickling well into the 20th century. As many areas are geographically locked, with limited access through mountain passes and slicing fjords, it has allowed for strong regional flavors and cultures to develop independently. As a result of this, the food was fairly simple, but made the most of what was available. 

There are some incredible ingredients particular to these northern-most regions, my favourite being the cloudberry. Its taste is unparalleled to anything else – at once sweet and savoury, syrupy and herbal – best when freshly picked and popped in one. Rivalled only by the wild blueberries available in almost any woodland in the peak of the summer months, the sparsity can still feel bountiful when nature provides in this way. 

In that same way, the steam of fat mackerel leaping out of the fresh salt water, causing the sea to boil and heave, made this inaccessible land feel full, fertile, and ripe. As the sun began to peak back around 3am, (early, so early) washing the hills at the end of the fjord in its warm, peachy light, our parents decided that it was probably time to call it a night and get some more sleep.

Of course, it was nearly impossible to return to bed after an episode like that, but my tiny body gave in to the exhaustion, and we all woke late that morning. It felt like a collective fever dream. 

Then, it was lunchtime. We would set up the barbecue next to the old, rusty white metal tables and chairs that seemed to grow as part of the grass around us. My grandmother would pickle thinly-sliced cucumber in a mixture of salt, sugar, and white vinegar, leaving it for a few hours to work its magic. Then the fish. The beautifully fresh, fatty mackerel. It would be filleted, seared, then put in a big cast iron pan, finished with a whole tub of creme fraiche and lots of black pepper. Served hot, with the cool, sweet-sour cucumber on the side and some boiled potatoes. It’s a meal I still long for today – and although it’s possible to replicate by buying fresh mackerel from the fishmonger, it’s not quite the same. 

Maybe there’s something in the moist sea air, the gulls crying overhead, the warmth of the pine forest… Maybe it’s my late grandfather, quiet but cheeky; my grandmother, butch, having just finished wielding a chainsaw to chop firewood for that night; our parents, tired but happy in the quietude; my sister and I, vying for the best piece of fish… Or, in fact, maybe it was the food itself, the way it was grilled, the particular cucumbers, the Norwegian fjord fish… But quite possibly it’s everything combined, the relatively incongruous importance of every element that somehow happened every summer for the better part of twelve years of my life. Seemingly coalescing in harmony, potentially rose-tinted by memory,  enhanced by the unmistakable, unforgettable flavour of grilled mackerel with pickled cucumber salad.

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