Mackerel scaveccio

Mackerel scaveccio

Scaveccio di sgombro

Emiko Davies; Lauren Bamford

This is a variation of one of Orbetello’s most famous dishes, scaveccio. Traditionally it’s made with eels fished out of the lagoon that are deep-fried, then marinated in vinegar, herbs and chilli. It’s not easy to get these eels outside Orbetello, so I make them with mackerel, which mimics the meaty, oily flesh of the eels and reminds me of a dish called nanbanzuke that my Japanese mother makes regularly with mackerel. In the Japanese dish, the fish is similarly floured, fried and marinated in rice vinegar, soy sauce, onions, chillies and mirin (though my grandmother used sake).

In that strange way that food can bring together two completely different places and cultures, there is a link here – both Orbetello and Japan were introduced to this technique for preserving fish by the Spanish (who in turn learnt it from the Arabs) in the sixteenth century. For the Orbetellani, the dish dates to the mid-1500s when the city came under Spanish rule – an influence that still resonates in the lagoon-city’s civic architecture as well as traditional foods such as bottarga and this dish, scaveccio. Its name comes directly from the word escabesce, the Spanish method for curing fish under vinegar.

It’s a wonderful dish to have in summer, as you can prepare it the night before and have a refreshing, cool, zingy lunch ready for you the next day when you come home from a morning at the beach. Serve it cold or tepid, with boiled potatoes that tame the bite of this robust, spicy, vinegary scaveccio.


Quantity Ingredient
1kg whole mackerel, about 4 small fish
2-3 tablespoons plain flour or cornflour
vegetable oil, for frying
250ml dry white wine or water
250ml white wine vinegar
1 whole fresh or dried red chilli
2 garlic cloves, whole
1 rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf


  1. The mackerel should be cleaned of entrails, head removed and filleted. If you’ve never done this before, you could ask your fishmonger for fillets. Cut the fillets into pieces with a width of about 5 cm. Debone the fillet pieces by plucking the bones out with tweezers. There can be quite a number of them – run your fingers along the fish to feel them.
  2. Dust the fish in the flour.
  3. Pour enough vegetable oil in a small saucepan to cover a depth of about 3–4 cm and place over medium–high heat to achieve an oil temperature of 170–180°C. If you don’t have a sugar thermometer handy to measure this, the old-fashioned test is to stick the end of a wooden spoon into the oil. When ready, it should immediately be surrounded by lots of tiny bubbles. Fry the fish pieces in batches until golden, firm and cooked through (about 2–3 minutes), and drain on paper towel. Sprinkle with salt.
  4. In a separate saucepan, prepare the marinade by bringing the vinegar and wine to the boil. Add the chilli, garlic and herbs and continue cooking for a further 2 minutes.
  5. Place the fried fish in a shallow dish – terracotta is traditional, but a glass ovenproof dish works, too. Pour over the hot marinade and let it sit a few hours before serving. If you’ve got the time, it tastes even better after marinating overnight, or even a few days. If keeping longer than a day or two, remove it from the marinade as it will become too strong. The vinegar acts as a preserving agent, so it keeps very well in the fridge for 1 week.


  • In Italy, eels are sold live, even from the supermarket, and there is a rather gruesome procedure to quickly kill very slippery live eels. This, I must admit, is the main reason why I like to do scaveccio with mackerel instead. You could also use pieces of orata (gilthead sea bream), or whole fresh sardines or anchovies here. I’ve seen variations of scaveccio made with other local eels and fish such as gronco (conger eels), boga and sparaglione (both from the sea bream family), as well as sugarello, a relative of the horse mackerel that you will often find as nanbanzuke in Japan. You could also use palamita (bonito).

Orbetello’s eels

  • Orbetello’s other famous creation, anguilla sfumata, is a spicy smoked eel dish that was created to conserve an abundance of eel for a long time. The live eels are killed, butterflied, cleaned, then strung up to dry in the sun and wind. They’re then brushed with a sauce made of red capsicums (bell peppers), hot chillies, vinegar and salt, and smoked. Herbs from the Mediterranean scrub, such as rosemary and bay leaf, are added to the fire to produce an aromatic smoke that dries out the eels. The flavoursome, spicy, smoked eel can be kept like this for some time. When needed, it’s cut into pieces and deep fried before serving.
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