Fish is preserved practically the world over, but the UK does it particularly well. I imagine that its enormous coastline and historic strength as a maritime power both were factors in its populace finding tasty ways to make fish keep. While the Portuguese and Spanish used salt for their cod, and the Scandinavians chose to pickle their mackerel and herring, the British have generally used smoke. In Scotland and Ireland, cold smoking is the norm for salmon. More prosaic, and these days far less popular, is the kipper, a whole, butterflied herring, heavily cured and grilled with butter as part of a (very) large breakfast. Smoked haddock is another particularly British speciality. Like kippers, the cure—and resulting colour—can often be overly harsh. But the best, when poached lightly to remove excess salt, make a creamy and delicate addition to chowders, fish cakes and the Anglo-Indian classic, kedgeree.
My favourite, though, is smoked mackerel. Its sweet, rich flesh needs no cooking and is tasty enough to eat on its own. In contrast to salmon, kippers and haddock, there don’t really seem to be small-scale producers or regional or other stylistic variations in smoking recipes. But even the bog-standard supermarket varieties—with the exception of the acrid, pepper-coated versions—are surprisingly good.
Smoked mackerel rillettes make a fantastically easy weekend lunch, either in an open-faced sandwich made with rye crackers or dark bread or alongside cucumber and potato salads (and maybe even some borscht). I haven’t had occasion to do so, but I imagine they’d work well as an hors d'œuvre before a more formal dinner.
Many recipes I’ve seen call for cream cheese. You could try this, but the tang and lighter texture of crème fraîche seem preferable. If crème fraîche is hard to come by, sour cream is a perfectly suitable alternative. The horseradish, though not essential, adds a welcome hint of piquancy. Even creamed, jarred horseradish would probably add something. In France, where hot-smoked trout is widely available, I’ve used that instead of mackerel. The only categorical guidance I would give is to avoid the food processor. Not only does it add to the washing-up, but the end-result will have an unwelcome resemblance to wallpaper paste.
If you’ll be drinking with this, non-vodka options could include a Muscadet, an Old World-style Riesling with a bit of residual sweetness, or a beer that picks up the mackerel’s smokiness.
Smoked mackerel rillettes
Total time : 10 minutes ; Active time : 10 minutes
150 grams plain, undyed smoked mackerel filet
fresh horseradish root
small handful fresh chives and/or dill
Strip mackerel from its skin and place in a medium-sized bowl. Lightly mash with a fork until there is mix of coarse paste and bite-size chunks. Add crème fraîche one teaspoon at a time, mixing through with each addition. You’ll likely want several teaspoons to get a spreadable but not overly sloppy consistency.
Loosen the mixture with a good squeeze of lemon juice. Using a microplane, grate in horseradish to taste. (I tend to use about one teaspoon.) Chop or snip in herbs.
Check seasoning (you likely don't need additional salt) and serve.