Monday, November 11, 2013

Fakirs' Smoked Mackerel Pate

I can’t claim this recipe for my own, even though I’d like to, and you’d probably never know any different. But it would feel wrong. Because the chef who lays claim to this wonderfully-simple dish deserves much wider praise.

He’s one of those proper cooks who lies undiscovered their whole lives. A small celebrity in a tiny brook who brightens the lives of the many who head to his harbourside haunt in the West Country.

Whether it’s for rib of beef on Sunday, or fish the rest of the week. Whole brill with elderberries, slabs of smoked haddock, or grilled hake in green tomato sauce. Flounders and plaice the size of your plate. And if you’re lucky, and the chef’s had a fruitful trip to the harbour, and you’ve both remembered your drunken order in the bar the night before as he sips that wonderful taste of after-service cider, then a lobster the length of your forearm - just poached, split lengthways, and warmed in parsley butter.

It’s the sort of place that thrives on word of mouth, and if one word were to describe it, it would be quirky. Because from the soused fishermen balanced precariously on stalls at the bar, planning their next day’s attack at the bass, to the old boy who grows his own in the garage, to the picture framer who says “I’m hanging in there” whenever anyone asks how business is, to the glass buoys pinned to the walls, to the sign saying “no thieves, fakirs, rogues, or tinkers, no skulking loafers, or flea-bitten tramps”, to the mermaid with her sleep-inducing flute, to the oft-forgotten service, to the ogre-sized portions, to the unripe plums and blueberries decorating a dressed crab this time from a fruitless lobster search from last night’s drunken pledge, there is no other place I prefer to eat.

Which is why I’ve been staying there in my room above the pub, dining on fish every night, and raising a glass to the chef after he emerges from the stove, glowing like a horsefly on the saddle and supping like a man who’s swallowed an ocean. Happy, content, beaming back. Fervent in the warmth of adoration. That vicarious pleasure only a true cook understands.

I love this place and the smoker at the back where you can take your fish to be brined in a barrel and browned over applewood embers. Slabs of smoked mullet eaten with butter-smeared fingers, or garfish if you don’t mind the bones and have no aversion to green ones.

But the best of the lot is the smoked mackerel pâté the chef makes. I’ve seen it made many ways, and far more complex at times, but that pate like all his dishes has a simplicity, a knowledge that the fish should be left to speak for itself and not be messed around with.

Other flavours are there - horseradish, smoked garlic, lemon and black pepper - but nothing takes away from the warming taste of that mackerel - silver skin turned gold from the wood smoke, and still warm from trickling embers, and then minced and left to sit and merge in ramekins overnight.

Eaten with nothing but toast, as you ponder each flavour and reflect again on how wonderful it is to eat fish, draped in salt and smoke, such a magical, binding chemistry of forgotten old England as you wait for your brill to arrive.

(Serves 4)

200g smoked mackerel
Lots of black pepper
Half a lemon, squeezed
5 smoked garlic cloves
4 level teaspoons horseradish sauce
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce
200ml double cream
1/2 tsp salt

Throw all the ingredients into a blender, and blitz for a minute or so until smooth. Spoon into ramekins and leave in the fridge overnight. Dust with paprika. Serve with triangles of toasted brown bread.

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