Up In Smoke
Fish smoking is often done in giant steel kilns, but there are around a dozen smokehouses in the British Isles doing it the traditional way – with lots of care, expertise and the flavour to match. As diners increasingly eschew mass-produced food in favour of artisanal ingredients, interest in this aromatic craft is experiencing a resurgence.
In the halcyon days of yesteryear, customers would pull up in their Rolls-Royces after summer fishing parties to leave freshly caught salmon with London fishmonger Ken Condon. He would smoke the salmon in his old brick smokehouse, tending the fire and opening and closing vents that control the smoking process by hand. His customers would return a week later to collect the lovingly hand-smoked salmon.
Today, 78-year-old Condon is retired and the tradition of hand-smoking for individual customers has all but died. Now, most smoking of fish is done in giant computer-controlled steel kilns that standardise the process, and as Condon and other aficionados will tell you, diminish the quality and taste of the fish.
There are, however, a dozen or so smokehouses in the British Isles still smoking the traditional way. As diners in the UK and around the world increasingly eschew mass-produced food in favour of artisanal ingredients, interest in the tradition of hand-smoking is experiencing a resurgence.
“I certainly can tell the difference, and my discerning clientele can tell the difference,” says Bill Pinney of Pinneys of Orford, a restaurant, shop and traditional smokehouse just off the scenic Suffolk Coast in southern England. “Buy smoked salmon from the supermarket and try ours, and you, too, will be able to tell the difference.”
Richard Enderby of Alfred Enderby fish smoking firm in Grimsby in Lincolnshire, England, agrees that the flavour of traditionally smoked fish is distinctive. The company, via a wholesaler, sends about 50 boxes every day to top restaurants, retailers and hotels in London, including Harrods, Selfridges, The Dorchester and The Connaught. They also send smoked haddock, cod and salmon to top fish restaurants around the UK, such as celebrity chef Rick Stein’s restaurants in Padstow, a charming seaside town off the coast of Cornwall.
“Our product is specialist, so we work through a wholesaler,” says Enderby, who has recently retired but remains a consultant to the family business. “Customers call for our Enderby fish across the UK, including in coastal areas such as Cornwall and Devon, where there are no traditional smokehouses. Rick Stein is synonymous with fish, but we send to him in Padstow fish from Grimsby.”
At least half of the dozen traditional smokehouses in the UK are located in Grimsby. The fish smoked traditionally here was in 2009 given PGI – Protection of Geographical Indication – status. The designation requires that fish is smoked using only traditional methods, as well as in an old smokehouse. The Alfred Enderby smokehouse is a listed building and is more than 100 years old.
“Grimsby has been a fishing town for hundreds of years,” says Enderby. “In 1848, the railway to Grimsby was completed. The town was then the most important fishing port in the UK, and by the first half of the 20th century, it was the most significant in the world. After the war, we saw a slow switch to kiln smoking, which is more like putting the fish in an oven than smoking it. But a few of us carried on in the old way, and we are now seen as specialist artisan fish smokers.”
The town experienced a sharp downturn in fortunes after the war, but there are now plans for regeneration, bringing a sense of optimism after years of decline. The hope is to transform the town into an artisanal food mecca, with Grimsby traditionally smoked fish leading the way.
Find the full article in the March issue of The Peak.