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Product of the week: Arbroath smokies

Categories: Product of the week

A highly traditional Scottish smoked fish

“The stall is named after the process used for smoking the fish,” says Matt of Oak and Smoke. “We get our Arbroath smokies from a producer who’s been at the forefront of smoking fish for more than a century. The smokie is steeped in tradition.”

The process, which has not changed for generations, is similar to one found in several of the Scandinavian regions from which the Vikings poured forth to wreak their havoc—and is where this style of smoking may have originated. “First the haddock are slightly salted, which semi-cures the fish,” Matt explains. “Originally they would have used sea salt harvested from the coast at low tide, but now it is just a good quality dry salt.”

A fire is lit at the bottom of the barrel using oak and beechwood chippings, which gives the smokie much of its unique flavour. The haddock is tied in pairs using a piece of hemp twine, then hung over v-shaped sticks laid across the top of the open barrels. “The length of the twine ensures the fish hangs at the correct height—just above the flames.” There is nothing between the fire at the bottom of the barrel and the fish, so it is a highly skilled job to manage the fire in such a way that it produces the right amount of heat and smoke, without overcooking or burning the fish.

Extra layer of flavour
“Once the fish is in place, the barrel is covered and sealed with a muslin cloth to make sure none of the smoke escapes. The fish is smoked for 45 minutes to an hour. The key thing is that this must take place at a high temperature. It is a very intense process, which cooks as well as smokes the fish.” But the barrels do far more than just act as a container to keep in the smoke: Arbroath smokies are smoked in whisky barrels left over from local distilleries and they impart an extra layer of flavour—one of the reasons that the true smokie is impossible to recreate elsewhere.

Indeed, in 2004 the smokie was granted Protected Geographical Indication status, giving it the same protection as products like champagne and Parma ham. This means that the Arbroath smokie label can only be used where the fish is haddock, caught in the North Atlantic, that has been salted and smoked in the traditional manner within an eight kilometre radius of the town of Arbroath, Scotland. “The PGI not only helps protect the livelihood of the local fisherman and those processing the smokies, but it also means that the unique taste of this wonderful fish, which has been central to this region for generations, will be preserved for people to enjoy for many years to come.”

Eat them cold, straight from the fridge, “or some people like to break them up and add the pieces to a salad,” Matt suggests. “You can also put them in the oven with a big knob of butter at about 180C then, when they come out, top them with some chopped parsley. I think this is a great way to get the best out of the smokie, especially if you are new to them.” Alternatively, have them in the traditional way—with a poached egg. “It really complements the smokies,” he grins. “It’s wonderful.”