King of Fish


As a small child I was fascinated with mimicking the mackerel man. We lived in a suburb of Halifax that verged on rural and the small fishing villages that dot the Nova Scotia coast were only a few miles away. While most of the Atlantic fishery is based on massive ships far out to sea for days or weeks on end, the area around Halifax harbour abounds with fish as well, and during mackerel season, small-scale fishermen with one small boat can make a regular month’s wages in one day simply by heading out to the mouth of the harbour in the morning to catch mackerel and then driving through the residential neighbourhoods at mid-afternoon, selling mackerel from the back of his car or truck – just in time for supper. (This is not exclusive to fish, although the mackerel man is the most memorable. It is still not uncommon to buy strawberries, corn or even lobster from the back of someone’s car in suburban Nova Scotia.)

The mackerel man who frequented my Grandmother’s neighbourhood had a distinctive nasally voice and during the last weeks of June (when the mackerel started “running”), I would wait impatiently for his wood-paneled station wagon to make its way slowly up the street. I would then run out to greet the mackerel man, following along behind him, yelling “Mackerel!” at the top of my small lungs until we got to the point on the street where I was not permitted to go beyond by myself. Then the mackerel man would wave good-bye, and I would make my way home, continuing to yell “Mackerel!” until my Grandmother stuck her head out the window, demanding that I shut the hell up.

In high school, the student body was comprised almost equally of both suburban students and kids from the rural fishing villages who were bussed in. In my senior year, only two weeks before final exams and graduation, every boy in my math class quit school to join their fathers on their boats. The mackerel were running and the mackerel don’t wait. The teacher, aghast at the situation, pleaded with them to stay until graduation, but her request fell on deaf ears. “I don’t need to graduate,” was the reply, “I’m just going to be a fisherman like my Dad.” This was, in retrospect, a profoundly short-sighted decision and no doubt, all of those young men had to go back and re-do those courses to graduate once the Atlantic fish stocks took a turn for the worse. It goes to show, however, that in Nova Scotia, fish is still king, and the king of fish, for the small fisherman, is mackerel.

I haven’t eaten mackerel in years. The last time was on a visit home when I joined my Dad and one of his friends on a evening boat ride to the mouth of Halifax harbour where we used “trawling lines” (basically a fishing rod where the line is dragged slowly behind the boat) to catch a dozen or so fat shiny mackerel. We cleaned them right on the boat, dumping the “chum” or guts over the side for other fish to feed on. Then we brought them home, fried them up in a bit of butter, and were ever so pleased with ourselves.

That was probably about ten years ago, and I had had a bad craving for mackerel for some time. It’s almost impossible to find in Toronto, however. Even during mackerel season, most of the Atlantic catch doesn’t make it this far, as it’s not an especially popular fish outside of the Maritimes… and Portugal.

Fast forward to our recent house move which now has us shopping at a supermarket in an area heavily populated with Portuguese families. We had been excited about the fish counter at this supermarket, but as we stood there yesterday, trying to decide between mussels and clams, Greg elbowed me. “What’s Cavala?” he asked. “It sort of looks like mackerel, doesn’t it?”

Yep, it does. That’s because it is mackerel… in Portuguese.

Right there in front of me, mackerel. Now, it wasn’t from Nova Scotia, which made me suspicious of the freshness. I asked to see it. The man behind the counter held up a fish and was surprised when I took it in my bare hands and sniffed it, then poked it, then stared into its eyes. I handed it back and smelled my hands – no fishy smell. Two big ones, please. Not as fresh as the ones we had caught and cleaned and feasted on all within a matter of hours, but still… mackerel.

We brought them home and I called my Dad. “Where the hell did you get mackerel in Toronto when I can’t even get it here?” he demanded to know. “Portugal,” was my smug reply, although Florida is a more likely guess. We discussed cooking options. While I love fried mackerel, I opted for broiling just because there would be less fishy smell – the high oil content in mackerel makes for lots of smoke and stink. I coated the skin in a lime and garlic mustard and served it up with an organic green salad and roasted potatoes. It was perfect.

As long as the supermarket keeps it in stock, we will be eating mackerel on a much more regular basis (more regular than once a decade, at least!). It’s an inexpensive fish, full of Omega 3 and B12, and is super delicious. I wonder, though, how the fishmonger would feel about me standing beside him yelling “Maaaaackrel!” at the top of my lungs.