In a new series, food writer, historian and host of the Borough Market Cookbook Club Angela Clutton explores the history and techniques behind the methods she uses to conserve Market produce. This month: smoking fish
Back when I was planning this series, I imagined that by now I would be a prolific home-smoker of fish and meat—heck, maybe even cheeses and nuts too. It’s rather like how I imagined the home-curing would go and anyone who read that will know the wheels came rather insalubriously off that plan. So it is with smoking too.
Yet it is with a very happy spirit I have accepted I’m going to leave the smoking of food to those with the space and equipment (not to mention long-won skills and experience) and I’ll spend my time instead on all the fantastic ways smoked foods can be eaten and cooked with.
Smoking and curing are related not just in my inability to successfully do either from my garden-less London-sized flat. Most produce that is to be smoked has to be cured first. The salt cure preserves by drawing out moisture, and that intensifies flavour. Smoking similarly preserves by drawing out more moisture, and has compounds within the smoke that manage to inhibit the growth of bad bacteria. Then the smoke goes one step further. It actually adds flavour to the finished product and that is where the skill of the smoker comes in.
Mildly fruity lilt
The type of wood the smoker chooses makes a real difference. Oak or beech are commonly the base that is then built on. Applewood can give a mildly fruity lilt to smoking hams, game birds or cheese. Cherrywood is fabulous for smoking duck or venison. Other aromatics such as hay, pine needles, bay, lavender or tea leaves can be added too. It is quite the balancing act to achieve the right notes to complement but not overwhelm the inherent flavour of whatever you are smoking.
If any of that sounds like the added flavours from smoking can be useful for masking inferior or not-so-fresh produce, it isn’t. Or shouldn’t be. Just like curing (actually, just like everything else in this series) the key to using these old techniques is to take something really good and make it even better.
Old this technique of preserving certainly is—so old that the priest holes sometimes discovered in farmhouse chimneys are not that at all; many of them were actually smoking holes or bacon shelves. The smoke would have travelled far enough away from the fire to reach the food up there at what we now know needs to be no more than 30C—quite hot for a hiding priest and just right for cold-smoking, but not cooking, meat and fish.
Smoking pit and barrel
With hot-smoking the food is set much closer to the heat source. The temperature of the smoke can be allowed to get as high as 90C, thereby cooking the produce as well. Hot-smoked eel, pheasant, duck, oysters, salmon or so much else are hot-smoked ready to eat or add into a dish. Haddock, which is so good cold-smoked into kedgeree or fish pies, also takes a star turn with hot-smoking, in the form of the famous arbroath smokies, over a smoking pit and barrel. Their wonderfully deep flavour is lovely wrapped in smooth béchamel and the crunch of croquetas in this recipe.
The background to arbroath smokies aligns with other smoked produce and also all the other ways of preserving that this series has covered: what began as a way of keeping a plentiful stock of produce before it went off, evolved into something truly delicious and distinctive in its own right. It’s food to be revered for its time-honoured skill, and devoured for what it stills brings to the modern palate.