WELL SEASONED

The Blog

Welcome to our award winning blog

 

Here you can find a collection of our thoughts, reports and ramblings together with some fun things we find along the way. We try to update the blog at least once a week and more often during busy periods so make sure you check back regularly..

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Aug 14 2017 09:06AM

As I find myself saying every year, August is the month when we first have to start thinking seriously about bottling some of the summer's bounty for the colder months ahead. Many of my recent weekends have been spent making chutneys and jams with surplus from the vegetable patch and orchard, but this last Sunday, with the hedgerows brimming with blackberries my thoughts turned to booze.


My favourite hedgerow tipple is undoubtedly damson gin. No doubt that's in part, due to my childhood memories of picking damsons on the family farm. We had twenty or so wild trees and the annual harvest was something of a tradition. (Looking back now I see I was shamelessly conned into it by my parents who didn't actually let me taste any of the end product until I was well into my teens. How innocent I was.)


But there are still a couple of weeks to go until this year's damson harvest and finding a half bottle of whisky at the back of the spirits cabinet led me to this recipe.


Much like sloe and damson gin, blackberry whisky is a long term investment. Although technically drinkable by Christmas, it will definitely still be pretty punchy, with harsh, peaty notes of the whisky. Leave it for a year and it will mellow to a smooth, port-like drink that is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Even if you don't like whisky, there's a fighting chance you'll love this.


I was quite happy with half a bottle but if you have the volume of fruit, then just double up the recipe for a bigger batch.


Blackberry Whisky Recipe


400ml whisky (the cheap stuff be fine. In fact, it's a great way to transform it into something drinkable.)

300g blackberries (picked on the day)

200g caster sugar


Simply place the blackberries in a half litre jar or the empty whisky bottle if it was a 750ml one. Pour over the sugar and add the spirit. gently turn to start the sugar dissolving then turn again every couple of days until entirely dissolved. After three or four months strain the fruit out through a fine muslin (they can develop a woody flavor if left too long). Pass the spirit through the muslin for a second time, to ensure it is crystal clear. Then leave to mellow for at least a year, ideally two. Enjoy neat or with chilled apple juice for a glassful of early autumn.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Aug 13 2017 11:00AM

Our rivers and streams are full of different species of fish, large and small. But perhaps the best known and certainly one of the easiest to catch, is the minnow. These small olive-brown fish can be found in most small streams and rivers, usually close to the river bank.


An afternoon on the riverbank catching minnows is a childhood memory that every seasonal family should share. The traditional jam jar and a piece of string will make a rudimentary trap but can break leaving shattered glass in the river. With a little work you can make a more sophisticated and safer version.


You will need:


• Two large (2 litre) clear plastic bottles of the same size and shape.

• About 2 metres of nylon string

• A pair of scissors

• Twist ties (the sort that you seal freezer bags with)

• A few pieces of stale bread or plain crackers for bait

• A bucket


First cut the neck off one of the bottles. Using a sharp pair of scissors, cut right around the bottle, at the bottom of the neck (where the bottle reaches its maximum width). Then, cut all the way round the middle of the other bottle. Discard the base of both bottles and one of the screw caps, into your recycling bin. Now, turn the smaller neck around and insert it into the base of the other neck. (The idea is to make an opening which is easy for the minnows to enter but harder for them to get out.) Firmly hold the two pieces together whilst you very carefully pierce six holes around the sides of the bottles, about 1cm below the cut edges. Firmly secure the two pieces together using the twist ties in five of the holes. Thread the string through the remaining hole and tie it securely (this knot needs to be strong as the trap will be heavy when you retrieve it.)


To use your trap, drop a few pieces of bait into the opening. Throw the trap into the water, (keeping hold of the string!) and allow it to sink. Leave for a few minutes (use this time to add some water into your bucket). You should see the fish shoaling around the bottle trap and, once there are some inside, you will see the bait moving as they take little bites. Smoothly pull the string to retrieve the trap from the water and you should have some minnows. Unscrew the cap (which is now at the base of the trap) and pour your catch into the bucket.


Minnows aren’t for eating so make sure you release them gently back into the river before you leave.


Did you know…? The word "goujon" is commonly used to refer to a thick finger of meat or fish (usually breaded and deep fried). It comes from the French name for another common freshwater fish, the gudgeon.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Aug 6 2017 11:00AM

Our harbours, piers and quaysides are teeming with crabs making the most of the calm waters and plentiful food. What trip to the coast would be complete without a crabbing competition?


Although there are 65 different species of crab found in British waters, the significant majority of the ones you'll catch when crabbing will be the Common Shore Crab. These efficient scavengers thrive on all kinds of waste but particularly enjoy discarded catch from fishing vessels, one of the reasons they love our harbours so much.


You will need


• A crab line or length of nylon string – at least 5 metres long.

• A washing tablet string bag or the feet of some old tights (not essential but makes refreshing your bait much easier)

• A small lead weight

• A bucket


Lower your baited and weighted line into the water, leave it to sink and wait a while. When you think you might have a crab, gently life your bait and carefully bring your catch to the surface.


Top tips for successful crabbing:


• Don’t put too many crabs in one bucket. Empty it when you have 10 or so.

• Keep your bucket out of direct sunlight and add some seaweed or rocks to give your crabs some shelter

• Use a smelly bait that the crabs can find. Both bacon and mackerel give off a small oily scent trail that the crabs can easily follow.

• Leave your bait still long enough to ensure the crabs can find it.

• A smooth retrieve is essential. Crabs will usually continue to grip the bait as long as it isn't jerked too suddenly.

• Be careful! Even small crabs can deliver a nasty nip. If you need to handle a crab, grip it gently but firmly from behind on either side of its shell.

• Remember to return your catch safely to the water before you leave.


If you want to tell the difference between male and female crabs, turn them over and look for the "abdominal flap" on their underside. The male flap is thin and pointed while the female's is wider and more rounded (it is used to carry eggs in the mating season).


Did you know…? The name for a group of crabs is a "cast"


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jul 23 2017 08:00AM

As any long-term readers of the blog will know, I've been influenced by River Cottage since the original television series back in 1999 (I was a student at the time and yes, I know that dates me.) You'll also know I strongly believe that, however skilled we think we are in the kitchen, we can always improve our knowledge. So, I was particularly excited recently to receive an invitation from the River Cottage team to attend a wild food cookery course at their Devon HQ - the perfect opportunity to learn some new things and enjoy some good food at the spiritual home of seasonal eating.


After a very pleasant night at the Talbot Arms in Uplyme (which deserves a brief plug, as much for their warm welcome as their enthusiastic replay of the winning Lions tour game) I took the short drive north to Park Farm, a.k.a. River Cottage HQ, on a beautifully bright Sunday morning. Anyone who, like me, dreams of downshifting to the West Country will be in jealous awe of the home that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the team have made for themselves here. With stunning views stretching for miles across the Axe valley, the location alone will have you mentally drafting your resignation letter. The 17th Century farm house is instantly recognisable to fans of the more recent TV series and doubles as the perfect venue for the various cookery and self-sufficiency courses now run under the RC banner.


After a quick coffee and introduction to the course from Connor, our host for the day, it was down to business. We were led through some basic knife skills and, quicker than you can say 'smoking twelve bore', were stood at a trestle table, each clutching a very dead rabbit. So, one obvious point to make is that this is definitely a "wild food" course, not only foraging. If you don't want to get to grips, literally, with dead things of one kind or another, you might want to choose an alternative option from the many on offer (a bread making session was running in the adjacent barn...). But with a commendable lack of squeamishness, everyone in the group set to work skinning and jointing their hapless classroom assistant. At this point, I should confess, I was momentarily distracted by a passing buzzard (no, really) and found myself winning the prize for first knife injury of the day. My trophies were a snazzy blue plaster and a resigned expression from Connor, suggesting he was not expecting me to be the last.


Back to our well-equipped kitchen work stations and, with a bit more chopping, some herbs and accompanying vegetables, the jointed rabbits were ready for braising in what would become genuinely one of the tastiest rabbit dishes I've had in recent years; testament to the transformational qualities of slow cooking. (Check out the receipe below and I really, REALLY recommend you try this one.)


The rabbit dish was going to take up to three hours to cook so there was plenty of time for the next part of the course - a stroll around Park Farm and a foraging lesson. What struck me here was the depth of our tutor's knowledge. I like to think of myself as pretty well versed in the art of finding wild food but Connor was in a different league when it came to spotting and identifying the various edible greens on the farm. Among others, we sampled wild sorrel from the field, dandelions from the hedgerow, goose foot from the vegetable patch and watermint from the stream. A truly fascinating ramble which also took us into the famous polytunnels and outhouses of the farm, being introduced to its other residents. If I'm ever reincarnated as a pig, I want to live at Park Farm and will cheerfully be made into River Cottage chorizo.


On a baking hot day, it was a relief to be back indoors and onto the fish course. Filleting and stuffing a mackerel (with our foraged herbs made in a bespoke salsa verde) made the perfect early lunch and set us up nicely for the afternoon session. Throughout the day Connor was happy to answer all of our questions in good humour, however basic or tricky they might have been. There was too much to report on each dish and activity individually, but the full 'menu' for the day (broadly in order) was:


- Knife skills (cutting and sharpening)

- Braised rabbit (including skinning and jointing)

- Foraging

- Herb stuffed mackerel (filleting and pin-boning)

- Cockles and mussels with chorizo, Sea Purslane and samphire

- Smoked rabbit loin (hot smoking)

- Watermint sorbet (palette cleansing revelation)

- Meadowsweet pannacotta (a real highlight for me and proof that "wild food cookery" can be as simple as finding a stunning new flavour for a traditional dish.)


You certainly won't go hungry on this course. If anything, there is too much food to eat and I certainly regretted starting my morning with a full English. It seemed a shame to leave some of the food uneaten and although bags were readily provided for anyone able to take their excess home, I think the day might benefit from preparing one dish to be taken home, rather than aiming to eat everything there and then. Without doubt though, this is a hands-on, comprehensive and fun course with plenty of opportunity to get involved and no waiting around. RC have obviously thought carefully about the day's content and aimed to pack it with a broad range of skills and dishes. Obviously, the exact content changes throughout the year and I particularly liked how several of the dishes had been adapted to suit ingredients that happened to be to hand on the day. For example, the samphire was a fitting late addition to the cockle dish, simply because it was abundant that week - it's exactly what seasonal cookery should be about.


As with any course, just as important as the content is the attitude and approach of those teaching it. What has always struck me about RC is that it manages to attract staff who, without exception, are universally 'on message' when it comes to the seasonal, ethical focus on our food. I have yet to meet anyone working either at HQ or in any of the Canteens who is not a wholehearted supporter of the cause and an exemplary ambassador for the brand. The same was true on this visit (both to HQ and the Axminster Canteen the night before). This is not just about an efficient training program (though no doubt that exists) but an ethos that clearly permeates everything about the business.


The 'project' has morphed in recent years. This seems to have been a very conscious move away from Hugh (who along with Jamie and Delia, needs only his first name) as a personality. Not only is this a shrewd business move, it's also entirely appropriate if the message is truly about spreading the word as widely as possible rather than celebrity of an individual. Having followed it for some two decades now, I've witnessed River Cottage's various stages of evolution and I'm delighted to say that it continues to thrive as a fantastic example to us all. As a budding food writer, if I can achieve a fraction of what the team have managed at River Cottage, and now Park Farm, I will be a happy man.


If you're tempted to try your own River Cottage cookery course, you can book your own HERE. If you use the discount code WELLSEASONED before 31 December you'll get £50 off any course. Tell them I sent you and that I'm planning to come back very soon. Possibly as a pig.


Coq au cidre (actually Lapin au Cidre)


Traditionally coq au vin is made with a cock bird and red wine, and very fine it is too. This adaptation using rabbit and cider is, I think, every bit its equal. You can cook it in the oven (at 160°C/Gas mark 3) once you’ve added the cider, if that’s more convenient.


Serves 4


Rabbit legs, about 1.6kg, jointed into 8 pieces

50g butter, softened

3–4 tbsp olive oil

150g pancetta or unsmoked streaky bacon, cut into small cubes

10 eschallots or large shallots, peeled

8 garlic cloves, chopped

A good handful of thyme

4 tbsp brandy (ideally apple brandy)

3 bay leaves

700ml dry cider

200g small dark-gilled mushrooms

25g plain flour

A handful of parsley, finely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Have the rabbit joints ready to cook. Heat half the butter and 3 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan and brown the rabbit in batches on both sides, seasoning with salt and pepper; don’t crowd the pan. Transfer all the rabbit joints to a flameproof casserole that will accommodate them in a single layer.


Add the pancetta to the frying pan and fry until lightly browned, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the rabbit. Add a little more oil to the pan if it is dry and cook the shallots gently, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes until soft but not brown. Add the garlic and thyme, cook for 2–3 minutes, then add the brandy.


Tip the contents of the frying pan over the chicken in the casserole and add the bay leaves. Pour in the cider, cover and simmer gently for 45 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms and cook for another 15 minutes. Check that the rabbit is tender and the juices run clear when the thickest part is pierced with a knife. If not, cook for another 10 minutes and check again. Transfer the rabbit, bacon, onions and mushrooms to a warmed serving dish and cover with foil to keep warm.


Bring the cidery liquid to the boil and reduce it by about a third. Meanwhile, mix the flour and remaining softened butter to a paste. Add about half of it, in pieces, to the liquid, whisking all the time. Keep whisking the bubbling liquid to cook the flour and thicken the sauce, adding more of the paste if needed, to thicken it further. Pour the sauce over the rabbit and serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.




By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jul 18 2017 09:09AM

With a mixture of excitement and nervousness, we submitted the first half of the book to the publishers last week. Eek! If you've ever handed in a thesis or large piece of coursework you'll know the feeling. Pen down, job done. Oh wait, let me just change that bit... etc. But definitely a really exciting time for us and it's made the book feel very "real".


In related news, we're really pleased that the publishers have confirmed Matt Inwood as the designer of Well Seasoned. In fact, coincidentally, Russ has known Matt for a number of years and had already shared his vision for the book so we're really confident that Matt is going to do a fantastic job. With books for Tom Kerridge, Jason Atherton and Atul Kochhar already in his portfolio we couldn't be in better company.


Finally, HERE's a link to the first of our teaser videos for the book. We're hoping to do a few of these as we reach various milestones in the publication timeline...and as our presentation skills improve!




By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jul 11 2017 02:04PM

Last weekend, in glorious sunshine, Russ did a demo at the Dorset Seafood Festival. Centred around Weymouth harbour, the festival is a celebration of all things fishy and although squid was on the menu for the demo, we took the opportunity to hand out our very first piece of official marketing material for the Well Seasoned book.


This recipe for razor clams features in the book's February chapter but you might still be able to find some clams on your fishmonger's slab, so we thought we'd share it with you.


Enjoy (and keep an eye on the blog for more sneaky previews as we approach March 2018)!


-----


RAZOR CLAMS WITH HERB CRUMB, LEMON AND PARSLEY BUTTER


These are a little fiddly to prepare but for this particular recipe all the prep can be done in advance so it will take the pressure off! Once the clams are steamed open, the meat will pull easily from the shell and the inedible parts can be cut away. Lay the clam flat on the board with the rounder end to the left, cut this off close to the dark sac. Lift the frilly wing up and slice off the cylindrical piece of meat with the pointed end. Now trim the wing away from the dark sac. Scrape off any odd bits of sand as you go. Now the meat can be sliced into half centimetre pieces ready to use. If you're unsure at any point, the internet has plenty of useful videos on fish and shellfish preparation.


Serves 4 as a starter


For the clams

1kg live razor clams, thoroughly washed

75ml white wine


For the butter

50g unsalted butter

½ lemon, grated zest only

1 dsp lemon juice

freshly ground black pepper

reduced clam cooking liquid

1 dsp chopped flat leaf parsley


For the crumb

1 tbs olive oil

1 clove of garlic, smashed

40g day old bread, preferably a rustic loaf, torn into pieces.

1 tbs chopped flat leaf parsley


Method

Before you start cooking the clams, have a roasting tin of ice ready to chill them as soon as they are cooked.


To cook the clams, heat a large casserole or sauté pan that has a tight fitting lid. When really hot, drop in the clams and pour in the wine. Put the lid on immediately and steam over a high heat for 1 minute until the clams are open. Use tongs to drop the clams onto the ice. Pass the cooking liquid through a fine sieve into a small clean pan and reduce until syrupy. Allow to cool. Prepare the clams as described above and then chill the sliced meat for a few minutes.


Beat the butter together with the lemon zest, juice and a few grinds of pepper. Gradually beat in the clam cooking liquid, checking for seasoning as you go. The liquid will be salty so stop when the butter is well seasoned. Add the parsley and mix in the clam flesh.


Select eight of the largest and best looking shells, give them a scrub and then place in a pan of water and bring to the boil to sterilise. Drain and dry off. Allow to cool.


For the crumb, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a small pan and add the garlic. Cook, turning frequently, to make a garlicky oil. Don't let the garlic go beyond golden or it will start to take on some bitter notes. Blitz the bread with the parsley, garlic and oil to make coarse breadcrumbs.


To serve

Fill the clam shells with the buttery clam meat and top with the breadcrumbs, grill under a hot grill for 2 minutes until bubbling and golden. Serve immediately with lemon wedges and bread for mopping up the juices.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jul 2 2017 11:00AM

There are 18 species of bats in the UK (making up a quarter of all our mammal species) and summer is the best time to spot them.


Our bat populations are declining due to a loss of suitable habits and over use of pesticides but you still have a good chance of spotting them in most parts of the country. They live both in the countryside and towns and are most active during the warmer months after they emerge from hibernation. Any area with a combination of old buildings, dead trees and water is likely to be home to a population of bats.


Bats are nocturnal so the best time to see them is either at sunset or sunrise. On a warm, dry day when there are plenty of insects in the air, find a patch of bright sky surrounded by trees or buildings and you'll see the bats flittering around, silhouetted against the sky at dusk and dawn. Different bats have different feeding patterns so look for them up in the air, skimming the top of hedgerows and over flat areas like fields and lakes.

The four species that you're most likely to see are:


• Pipistrelles (common and soprano) - the most common bats. Small and fast, you'll spot them flittering across the sky at sunset.

• Noctules - these bats usually fly in straight lines, high in the air.

• Brown long-eared bat - emerge later at night and are harder to spot because they stay very close to the trees where they feed. If you're really lucky you'll spot one hovering up in the branches.

• Daubenton's bat - also known as the water bat, most often seen skimming over rivers and ponds.


If you do manage to spot bats you can help conserve them by taking part in a Bat Conservation Trust survey. Available online, these simple recordings of sightings and numbers help the trust compile valuable conservation information. You should never disturb or interfere with roosting bats; they are protected by law and it is illegal to handle one without a licence. But you can (and should) encourage them into your garden by building a bug house (see February).


Did you know…? Bats can eat 3000 insects a night. That's up to a third of their own body weight.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jul 2 2017 10:00AM

One of the great family days out for any seasonal family should be rockpooling on one of Britain's may rocky beaches.


Rockpools are harsh environments. The creatures that inhabit them need to be able to survive extremes of temperature, moisture and salinity as well as rough seas and constantly crashing waves. Taking a slightly more scientific approach to your rockpooling will open your eyes to these brutal and competitive self-contained worlds.


The equipment you'll need is very similar to pond-dipping (see June) but tide tables and suitable footwear are essential extras.


You will need:


• A net

• A light coloured bucket or tray

• A magnifying glass

• An identification book

• Tide tables (the biggest rockpools with most life in them are revealed at low tide)

• Wellies or water shoes


As with pond dipping, half fill your tray or bucket with water then use your net to explore the pool, especially the weedy edges and gently turn your net out into the tray. You'll be able to pick some shells and slower-moving crabs out by hand. With some creatures, especially hermit crabs, they will retreat into their shells as you approach or touch them so wait for a few minutes and watch them re-emerge.


Look out for:


• Small fish like blennies, goby and pipefish

• Crustacea like shrimp, crabs and lobsters

• Molluscs and other shellfish like mussels, whelks, winkles and limpets

• Seaweeds like kelp, sea lettuce and bladderwrack

• Anemonies, starfish and sea urchins

Carefully return everything to the rockpool when you leave and always be aware of the rising tide. Rocks covered in seaweed or algae can be extremely slippery so tread carefully.

"The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."

Jacques Cousteau


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 11 2017 08:00AM

One of our favourite early summer outings is a trip to the south coast to dive for scallops.


In truth, the plump, sweet and succulent scallop isn't strongly seasonal and can be enjoyed most of the year round but, since they spawn during the later summer months, June provides the optimum compromise between their reproductive cycle, some slightly warmer coastal waters and suitably calm weather needed for scuba diving.


The highly-selective and labour intensive operation of diving for scallops is about as sustainable as you can get. Suitable specimens can be plucked from the seabed, 30m below the surface, and everything else is left completely undisturbed. Dredging, the alternative and most common method of harvesting scallops, is much less selective. Dragging a steel jaw along the seabed can cause considerable disturbance, damaging important habitats and dramatically reducing biodiversity.


Now, had we written this post a few years ago we'd definitely have urged you to stick exclusively to "hand-dived" or "diver-caught" scallops. And that is still largely the case - if you ever find yourself doubting the mantra that fresh British seasonal food is best, try a fresh South coast hand-dived scallop and compare it to a foreign, frozen, supermarket one. It's an embarrassing Round One, knock-out of the foreign contender and victory to the eco-friendly home-grown heavyweight.


But supporters of the dredging industry point out that scallops live in naturally sparse areas of sand and gravel that are routinely disturbed by waves and tidal action in any event. They also say that certain dredged fisheries (such as the Rye Bay fishery) have been producing good numbers of scallops for decades without any decline in number or quality – a sign that they can’t be doing that much damage.


It is at least a partly-convincing argument and it's only fair to point out that the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has recently rated some dredged scallops as sustainable on its Fish to Eat web resource. King Scallops from Shetland are rated 2 on its sustainability scale - the same as diver caught scallops from other regions. The MCS says that, in some case, the effects of dredging can be mitigated by rotating the areas that are dredged as well as using smaller, less powerful dredgers and lighter weight gear.


Dredged scallops are, unsurprisingly, considerably cheaper that their more carefully handled cousins and with some now rated as similarly sustainable, it's hardly reasonable to expect everyone to stick to the priciest option. There are plenty of other arguments in favour of diver caught, not least the quality of the product (dredged scallops tend to be grittier and have damaged shells) and we still always buy them, but it's a slightly harder call than it once was and one which a combination of your wallet and conscience will need to make.


Scallops should be cooked simply and quickly to enjoy their sweet, succulent flesh.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 9 2017 08:00AM

As the weather and our coastal waters warm up (15 degrees appears to be the trigger point), mackerel will start coming inshore and in June you'll easily be able to catch them with a simple rig. It's a great introduction to sea fishing.


The simplest way to experience mackerel fishing is to book a spot on a fishing trip. You'll find them in most harbour towns these days and you can expect to pay a few pounds per person for a two hour session with all kit and instruction supplied (plus a share of the spoils) which is pretty good value and a great introduction for real beginners. But, assuming you'd rather invest in some kit that you can use at your own pace and whenever you're down at the coast, here's my mega mackerel masterclass to help you catch your own sustainable dinner, direct from the beach.

Basic kit

Don't be tempted to spend hundreds of pounds on tackle online. You can kit yourself out for a mackerel session for well under fifty pounds and the best place to go is your local tackle shop. Not only will you be supporting local businesses, you'll also be getting access to a wealth of free fishing information. Fishing shop owners are a friendly bunch and will be happy to talk as much as you like, especially if they smell a sale. They should know everything about their kit as well as vital local knowledge on the best spots. Tell the shop owner what you're after and hopefully you'll come out with at least the following:

- A rod (suitable for casting),

- A reel (again, suitable for casting rather than boat fishing or fly fishing).

- Main fishing line and a "shock leader" line.

- A selection of mackerel feathers (pre-tied strings of 3 to 6 hooks, with a feather, foil strip or similar sparkly adornment).

- A selection of ledgers (a simple lead weight or "bomb" in a streamlined shape, with a small loop at the top to attach to your line) from 2oz to 4oz.

If you're a complete novice you'll need to know how to set the kit up. Your helpful shop owner should be happy to show you how to do this but make sure you pay attention. You'll need to know a few basic knots as well as how the rod and reel work, so don't be shy to ask and make sure you've committed it all to memory before you part with your hard-earned cash.

When to go

Although mackerel are present in our waters all year round, they usually only come inshore in late spring and will be at their peak in June and July. The first thing to remember is that mackerel are either within casting distance of the shore, in which case you should catch some, or they aren't, in which case you won't, however hard you try. A wise and experienced angler once told me that the best way to fish for mackerel is to wait until you've seen someone else catch some, then get casting - and there's a lot of truth in that. If you can't wait or there's no one else around, you can maximise your chances by fishing at high tide and in the hours either side of sunrise and sunset. Calm, still days are best but as mackerel have no eyelids, they don't like bright sunlight - if it's a very sunny day, they'll be nearer the bottom. Signs you might look for include a thin slick of oil on the surface of the water and seabirds diving into the water (they aren't actually eating the mackerel but the bait fish - usually sand eels - that the mackerel are chasing.) In the height of summer you might even see the sand eels bubbling on the surface of the water, sometimes just yards from the beach. Mackerel have even been known to beach themselves in the hunt for their food.

Where to go

You'll need a beach or pier that gets you easy access to deep water. So, rapidly shelving pebble beaches like Chesil in Dorset, are ideal, or any long pier, such as Brighton. Piers may have rules about when you can fish so it's worth checking in advance. Rocky headlands are also good but they can be very dangerous and you'll need to take extra care on these.

Casting and retrieving

Set up your kit and get casting. Aim to get as much distance as possible. Although the fish can be very close to the shore, the further you cast, the more water you'll cover and the more chance you'll have of catching. But remember that you can vary your depth too - it's no good casting miles and constantly retrieving your feathers though the top 10m of water if the fish are at 20m. So, mix it up a bit. Leave a few seconds before you start your retrieve to allow the weight to sink a bit. If that draws a blank, try again but with a quicker or slower retrieve. You'll see people lots of different techniques - some people just reel straight in, others prefer to twitch the rod or use a series of pulls and reeling in. Give all of these a go and find the one that suits you. Ultimately, they'll all work if the fish are there.

Catching

You'll know when you've caught anything - there will be a sudden increase in resistance and you'll feel the fish fighting at the end of the line. It's an exhilarating feeling if you've never caught one before but, once you've felt that initial tug, it's worth trying not to get too excited. The fish that's there is likely to stay hooked but your other hooks may well be in the middle of a shoal and, if you give it a few more moments, you have a chance of catching a few more. So, wait a few seconds and then reel in. With this method it's not that unusual to score a "full house" with a fish on every one of your hooks. Unhook your catch and give each fish a couple of sharp blows to the head with a "priest" or study stick. It can appear brutal but it's the most humane method and ensures a quick death. Mackerel spoils very quickly so once you've killed it, gut it as soon as you can and then store it in a cool bag or a bucket or water.

Then get that barbeque lit. The fresher the better is definitely the rule for mackerel.

And finally...

If you fish regularly throughout the summer you will have days when you can catch hundreds of mackerel. It's easy to get carried away but try only to catch as many as you're going to eat. Once caught, mackerel can't be released as they have a very sensitive skin membrane which degrades as soon as it's been touched. If handled by human hands, even very gently, mackerel will die within days. They do freeze well but mackerel are always best fresh. So if you don't have a plan for them, best to leave them in the sea and come back another day. Conversely, some days you'll do everything right and just won't be able to catch them. If that's the case, pack up, and get down to the fish and chip shop before you get totally fed up. There are no guarantees with fishing and it's important to know when to cut your losses. Retain some of your enthusiasm for another day and remember that it wouldn't be any fun if you caught something every time, now would it?


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