Monday, 29 April 2013

Mackerel with Cumin, Cheese, and Oil

Last week we opened up a whole new world of possibility when we discovered that you can indeed cook fish and cheese together to good effect.  This week we're going to try and see just how good that combination can be.

The original recipe calls for bream from Carthage or Byzantium, but if bream is unavailable to you, or if your local Byzantine merchant can't get his hands on any, then feel free to settle for another type of fish as I have.  It also calls for a clay oven, which, unless you're an experimental archaeologist, I'm guessing you won't have (in fact, very few Romans had them as well!).

Mackerel with Cumin, Cheese, and Oil
(Serves 1 as main, or several as a starter)

"When you're by the sea at Carthage, bake some bream after washing it well.  You'll find great big bream in Byzantium too, their bodies the size of round shields!  Work with the fish whole.  Once you have coated the fish with cheese and oil, hang it up in a hot clay oven and bake it through.  Once done, sprinkle with cumin and salt, and drench it with divine grey-green oil." - Archestratus fr. 13, as recorded in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 320b-c


  • 1 Fresh Mackerel (or Fillets) 
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1/2 tsp Cumin Seeds
  • Some Hard Italian Cheese (Gran Padano, Parmesan, Pecorino Romano)
  • 4 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil


  • The recipe does specifically say to use the whole fish, but you don't have to if it's too much hassle.  If, like me, you have chosen to use a whole fish, prepare it accordingly by following the advice in this video.  With the head chopped off, spine removed, and fish laid out flat, it's on to the next step.
  • Grate as much cheese as you think it might take to cover the whole fish.  You're supposed to cover it on both sides, but feel free to just cover the top if it is easier.  Mix this cheese with 3 tbsp of the olive oil, creating a paste.  Spread this on the fish.
  • Lay out some parchment paper on a baking tray, and set the fish onto this.  If you don't have parchment paper, brush the tray with olive oil.  Place this into an oven preheated to 180 Celsius.
  • Whilst the fish is in the oven, toast the cumin seeds in a dry frying pan until they start to give off an aroma.  Grind them up and mix with the salt.  If it's easier, use pre-ground cumin.
  • After 20 minutes in the oven, your fish should be wonderfully cooked.  Take it out and sprinkle with the cumin/salt mixture; a big pinch should do it.  Drizzle with the remaining spoonful of olive oil, and serve it up to your hungry guests.


This has quickly catapulted its way to the top of the ancient fish dish pile, and I reckon it might just be one of my favourite ancient recipes so far.  Last week we learnt that fish and cheese can work well, but on the whole it was just that bit too rich and oily.  The kick of the cumin sees to that nicely, imparting a wonderful fragrance and spiciness.  If ever you want an example of how fish and cheese can work well, give this recipe a go.

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