Fish such as mackerel, red mullet, sardines and sprats are at their best during the colder months from autumn right through until early spring. With flesh that tastes of the deep, salty ocean from which it has come, these oily fish are stronger in flavour than their white-fleshed brethren, with an unctuousness that is absent from the other varieties common to the waters around Britain. But the taste is so very satisfying – and it has the added bonus of being very good for you.

Oily fish works best when served with clean flavours; something to cut through the taste of the flesh, leaving it with a slightly sharp flavour. Lemon juice is a must and these fish must be eaten immediately when they are really hot – served at room temperature, they tend to disappoint. And in case you need further persuasion, oily varieties have the added advantage of being among the cheapest fish available in the shops!

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627,

Carpaccio of mackerel

If you like sashimi, this dish is similar. The mackerel needs to be very fresh, caught no more than the day before. Look for fish with skin that is glossy and firm, with clear eyes and smelling no more than of the sea from which it has come.

Serves 4

Allow 800g/28oz of fish per person
100ml/31/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
The juice of one lemon
1 fresh red chilli, sliced into rounds
Sea salt

Ask the fishmonger to fillet the fish for you if you don't feel confident doing it yourself.

Place four plates in the fridge to cool. Place the fish on a chopping board, skin-side down and, using a sharp knife, slice the fish following the grain into slices an eighth of an inch thick. Arrange the fish attractively on to the chilled plates and drizzle over the olive oil. Now squeeze over the lemon juice and scatter over the chillies. Season with the salt and serve. The salt on this dish is very important, as it will bring the flavours alive. Serve at once as a simple starter.

Sardines with mint anchovy and chilli

This makes a delicious and easy starter that can be made in minutes. Serve it simply with good bread and unsalted butter.

Serves 4

For the dressing

2 good-quality anchovy fillets
1 red chilli, seeds removed and chopped very finely
1 small bunch of mint, leaves only, chopped finely
80ml/3fl oz olive oil

For the fish

8 very fresh sardines (ask your fishmonger to fillet them for you)
Sea salt

For the dressing, chop the anchovies finely and place in a bowl, add the chilli and mint and pour in the olive oil. Stir well to combine and set aside while you cook the sardines.

The pan will need no oil, as the sardines will give off enough as they cook. Season well with salt, skin-side only, and place a medium-sized non- stick pan over a medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add the sardines, ensuring you place them well apart, skin-side down. Cook without turning for two to three minutes. When done, the skin should be crisp and the flesh will have lost its translucence.

Serve immediately on a warmed plate, then spoon over the dressing.

Grilled red mullet with saffron aioli

When cooked, red mullet is a beautiful fish, glowing orange with just a hint of gold. It has a natural affinity with saffron. It is also very good with roasted fennel, Pernod or simply with a green salad and buttery hot little new potatoes.

Serves 4

For the aioli

1 tsp saffron threads
3 egg yolks
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

The juice of half a lemon

Sea salt
80ml/3fl oz olive oil

For the fish

Allow one fish per person weighing about 300g/10oz (ask your fishmonger to gut and scale them)
Enough oil to brush the fish
Plenty of sea salt and black pepper

Start by making the aioli. This can be made a day or so in advance. Place the saffron threads into a small bowl and add just enough warm water to cover. Steep for five minutes. Place the yolks, garlic and lemon juice into a blender and season with a pinch of salt. Once the saffron has softened and the water has turned a deep, golden orange, add to the other ingredients in the blender. Turn on your machine and pour the oil as slowly as you can through the funnel in the top – the aioli will gradually begin to thicken and become unctuous. Once all the oil is finished, turn off the engine and spoon the sauce into a bowl. Set aside while you grill the fish.

If you don't have a satisfactory grill, you can roast in the oven – which should be set at its highest setting. Otherwise, light your grill or barbecue and, when very hot, brush the fish with the olive oil and season generously with the salt and a little black pepper. Place the fish on the hottest part of the grill and cook on one side for eight to 10 minutes, then carefully turn (I find tongs the most helpful implement here) and cook for a further five minutes on the underneath. The cooking time would be the same in the oven. Remove the fish and lay together on a platter to let everyone help themselves. Pass the aioli around separately. One of my favourite accompaniments to this meal is a simple tomato salad, well salted and scattered with thyme or basil. Good bread and unsalted butter are imperative.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on the best direct suppliers of oily fish...

Forman & Field offers smoked tuna, Lancaster kippers and smoked eel (020 8525 2352,

Brown and Forrest, a smoked-eel specialist from Somerset, known for smoking over beech and apple wood (01458 250 875,

Cornish Pilchards sells tinned, line-caught mackerel fillets and pilchards (01503 262 680,

Quayside Fish, from Porthleven, Cornwall, sells local fish from small in-shore boats, available for same-day dispatch (01326 562 008,

Alex Spink & Sons is known for its Arbroath smokies, mackerel and kippers (01241 879 056,