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Smoke on the water

Clare Finney treks up to the east coast of Scotland and back in time a good few hundred years to watch the Arbroath smokies sold by Oak & Smoke being made in a manner resolutely untouched by modernity


Images: Tom Bradley

Soaring costs, squeezed margins, social, environmental and political upheaval: these are testing times for all of us, but particularly small-scale food producers. Their traditions may be time-honoured, their practices perfected over generations, but when scale and consistency are too often valued over craftmanship, even those within easy reach of rich, global markets have had to modernise to keep up.

Not all of them, though. Certainly not Alex Spink and Sons, supplier of Arbroath Smokies to Borough Market’s Oak & Smoke. Tucked down a seaside street in Arbroath on the east coast of Scotland, their fish house looks and feels a million miles away from modernity. To enter the Spink smoking room – a murky yet strangely comforting place, redolent with woodchip and haddock – is to travel back in time not just to 1972, when Alex Spink senior decided to smoke fish rather than go to sea with his father, but to 15th century Scotland. “This is at a slightly bigger scale, but the smoking methods we’re using here have not changed really in hundreds of years,” says our host, Gary, as he builds the fire and tightens the string on the haddock fillets he prepared earlier.

Popular legend has it that in the wee village of Auchmithie, next to Arbroath, a fire broke out in a store where some salted haddocks were hanging up for preservation. Sifting through the soot and ashes to see what they could salvage, the villagers discovered the bronzed and burnished fish – and so, they say, ‘smokies’ were born. Historical fact, alas, affords no such colour: the practice was almost certainly brought over by the Nordic settlers who arrived regularly on this stretch of coast. There are striking similarities between the smoking habits of medieval Scotland and medieval Scandinavia. The name Spink – like many common to the area – has Nordic roots.

Alex Spink senior has retired, but his son, Alex junior, currently on his way back from the fish market, is keeping the family business going. Gary is not a Spink; he has, though, been working with the family since he was 14, so he’s pretty immersed in the business – particularly the smoking side of things. The haddock he’s tying now were salted three days ago, “for four or five hours – it really depends” and hung last night to firm up still further. Though the rule with fresh fish is the fresher the better (most of Alex junior’s haul will go to their fresh fish counter in their local shops), the reverse is true of smoking. “If a fish is too fresh when we try to hang it up and smoke it, it will fall off.”

This doesn’t often happen, but when it does, the lost fish, known as ‘droppers’, quickly find a happy home: “The best time to eat a smokie is straight after it’s come off the fire,” grins Gary. As he checks the string that ties the paired haddock fillets together (one hangs either side of the metal stick) he puts a pinch of salt around their tails to tighten them still further. He’s been here since 5am. It’s now 7am. The fish will go on the fire soon, and be off by 9am so the courier can collect them at noon and carry them off to restaurants and retailers. “They need to be cool enough to pack, but we want them to be as fresh as possible,” he says. Though there are several smokehouses in Arbroath, Alex Spink and Sons is one of the few to smoke every day, “so our smokies are some of the juiciest and freshest there are”.

“It takes a while to get the timings. Sometimes you can say it will take an hour and a half, but if there’s a fair bit of wind it will make the fire hotter so they smoke quicker. Likewise, if the fish are smaller. The weather, the size of the fish and the freshness of the fish all play a part in the timing,” says Gary, who developed the instincts and experience needed for his craft by spending several years observing his predecessor at work.

The fire lit and crackling, he returns briefly to his colleagues in the main processing area. Alex junior has returned from the market, so there are several boxes of fish to unload, unpack and fillet, destined either for smoking or for selling fresh at Spink’s local shops, where, in a display of perversity typical of people whose place of living has become bound up with a certain foodstuff, smokies don’t sell particularly well.

The filleting is all done by hand. “There are filleting machines, but they don’t work with smokies. You have to fillet, keep the backbone, and get the head off, but with minimum meat loss. Then you have to clean them.” Gary gestures toward his colleague, Ron, and the whirring brushing machine he is operating, the only piece of mechanisation I’ve seen outside the company office. In the cold, clear running water and Ron’s careful hands, each fish takes around six seconds. After this, the cleaned, filleted fish are packed into containers of dry salt to reduce the moisture, harden the skin and add flavour. The quantity of salt and timing of the immersion depends on the weight of the fish: another complicating factor in what, for all its seeming simplicity, is clearly a remarkably refined process. Part way through the salting, fish of equal size will be paired and tied together by the tail using ‘thrums’: locally produced jute string, once a by-product of Angus’s many spinning mills. Then, once salting’s complete they’ll be washed and hung on rails or sticks to dry.

Every step of this process has been enshrined in EU regulation since 2004, when the Arbroath smokie achieved protected status, a development that made a huge difference to every smokehouse in the area authorised to produce this succulent, salty speciality. Only those operating within a five mile radius of Arbroath can produce smokies – the town having been the epicentre of production since the late 19th century when the fishing families of Auchmithie moved there for its superior harbour and housing prospects – and the haddock must, bar exceptional circumstances, come from Scottish waters. “The Arbroath smokie has been described as being to the humble haddock what prosciutto crudo is to the hind leg of a pig,” the relevant regulation states. “It is the ultimate in flavour that can be achieved from the original article, and the secret, as with prosciutto, lies in the cure which gives the smokie its delicious taste combining the subtle tang of smoke with the sweet, delicate flesh of the haddock.”

For this reason, it cannot be mechanised. “Many have tried, but it just doesn’t work,” says Gary. As the specification itself notes, smoking over an open fire “imparts a succulence and flavour that cannot be matched by similar products smoked in mechanical kilns”. By this point the fire is ready, its fuel of hardwood fully ablaze in what is still called ‘the barrel’, though the Spinks’ operation has long outgrown the whisky barrels their ancestors favoured. This makes no difference, Gary observes: “After so much use, the barrels wouldn’t have imparted any whisky flavour.” It’s the fresh hardwood that gives the smoke it’s taste, a mix of cedar and oak. “Some people have tried to use old broken-up palettes and other rubbish, but you can’t do that. The smoke is the flavour, so you need to use quality wood.”

Donning thick gloves, Gary lifts the fish-laden sticks and places them above the fierce, flickering fire. “It’s a nice, calm day without wind” he observes wryly – we’re there a week after Storm Dennis’s ‘visit’ – “but these aren’t the biggest fish, so they should take about 90 minutes.” He shuts the heavy wooden lid, another minor and fairly meaningless update on the hessian sacks historically used to trap the smoke. “Sacks are hard to source and wood is just as good. Solid but breathable,” Gary continues. Because one side of the fire is hotter than the other (“No idea why; it’s always been that way”) he’ll need to turn them about half way through the process. He sets his phone alarm and returns to the fish prep room, where Alex junior is unloading salmon: thick, pink sides, from farms in Shetland and Norway that prioritise sustainability. While Gary slices them up, we retire to the office to chat with the two Alexes: Alex senior has arrived, here to take a break from retirement by filleting fish and filling us in on his life’s work.

Forty-two years ago, when he started the business, Arbroath was still a bustling harbour, with most of the town employed directly or indirectly by the fishing trade. His father was one of them: a fisherman who in Arbroath’s heyday was “catching fish like they’d never caught before”. This was the mid-1970s, Alex senior continues. “The pair trawl had started: two boats, pulling one net between them, which dragged along the bottom and caught all sorts of fish” – a method even more damaging than the one-boat trawler. “After two or three years, the fish got very scarce – and that was the beginning of the end, really.” Trade moved to Aberdeen, and then, when that harbour fell too, to Peterhead and Shetland. Meanwhile young Alex senior had spurned the family boat in favour of fishmongery and smoking – first for another merchant, then using his father’s steadily diminishing haul.

The draconian quotas introduced by the UK and EU decimated Scotland’s fishing towns, but did have a significant upside. “There are more fish now than there ever were. At one point we were having to import fish from Iceland to sell. There were no fish at all out there,” he says. Now he’s handing his business on, confident in the knowledge that Alex junior, Gary and the rest of his former colleagues will be secure in its employ. “There is a future in it now – otherwise I’d never have encouraged Alex,” he says soberly. “There are fewer boats, but they are better boats, and the fishermen are investing in it.” Not all are sustainably minded, and Alex junior is careful to buy from those certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, but there is “a lot more confidence in the industry”. That, together with the EU protected name status, has sown hope among fish merchants here in Abroath.

Gary pokes his head round the door. “The smokies are coming off the fire now, if you’d like to watch,” he announces. We follow eagerly, hoping there’ll be a dropper or two, our appetites having been stoked further by the Spinks’ description of eating them “straight off the barrel, when the flesh is juicy and moist and still warm”. In the fug of the smoking room, Gary lifts the barrel’s heavy wooden lid and disappears briefly into a billow of smoke before emerging triumphantly with a rail of smokies. Burnished by the fire, their skin sizzles slightly as he sets them down: “Sometimes I take the temperature, but I’m mainly looking for colour, and whether the skin moves.” He knows these are ready because their skins are coppery, dry and taut. Now it’s the salmon’s turn to enter the smoker: hot smoking requires more heat from the fire, so they follow the smokies, which fare best on its first, less intense flames. Gary makes toward the trays of pink fillets and, as he does so, a single solitary smokie starts to fall. He catches it just in time and, setting it before us, deftly removes the main bone so the skin splits and reveals its steaming white bounty. We fall upon it and, using our fingers, peel off jagged lumps of the flesh. It is delectable: creamy and barely-cooked, with a lingering hint of oaky smoke that complements its innate sweetness. It is like an apple eaten straight from the tree, a pea podded and popped onto your tongue. It is past and present, time and place, all in one mouthful.