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What it takes: fish smoking

Matthew Parr of Oak & Smoke on the work involved in creating Arbroath smokies and other smoked fish


Interview: Viel Richardson

One of the defining products of your Oak & Smoke stall is the Arbroath smokie. What exactly is it?

A type of hot smoked haddock. Arbroath smokies have EU protected status, meaning that only haddock smoked using traditional methods within a five-mile radius of Arbroath can use the name.

Where did the process originate from?

It all started in Auchmithie, a small fishing village a few miles north of Arbroath, whose population had originally settled there from Scandinavia. The women would salt the fish then smoke them in barrels with fires at the bottom, while trapping the smoke under layers of hessian sacking. In the early 1900s, some of the community began moving to Arbroath and the fish they produced became known as the Arbroath smokie. In the days before refrigeration, this was an important method of preservation. Salting removed a lot of the moisture where the bacteria gathered, and smoking killed the bacteria that were still present. The combination of the two processes allowed the fish to be stored for longer.

Walk us through the process.

The fish are covered in salt, then pairs of them are tied together by the tail and hung up for about 24 hours. To smoke them, these pairs of fish are draped over metal rods that have been laid across the open top of a whisky barrel that’s had its top section cut off, with a fire burning inside.

The fires are built using a combination of beech and oak wood. The fire burns initially for between 60 and 90 minutes, with a wet hemp cloth draped over the whisky barrel. Wetting it stops the hemp from catching alight and traps most of the heat, creating a very hot, moist environment. Once the required temperature has been reached, the wet hemp is removed, the metal rods with the tied fish hanging over them are placed over the top of the barrel, then the cloth is draped back over them. The hanging fish are very close to the heat source, so they are being smoked at a very high temperature. Quite often, in fact, some of the fish will be licked by the flames of the fire. The high heat slightly crisps the outside while the high humidity keeps the flesh moist. This is what gives the smokie that wonderful, almost creamy texture and deep smoky flavour that you cannot find anywhere else.

Do you use whisky barrels for all your smoking?

No, we also smoke in a traditional smokehouse, which is designed to recreate the environment of the barrel, producing that hot, damp environment. It means that you can smoke more fish each time, although still a lot less than the huge commercial smokeries. Which method we use will depend on how many fish we need to smoke, but both the smokehouse and the barrels are in use.

Hot smoked salmon

Does the type of barrel used have an effect?

Not really, if the barrel imparts any flavour, it is negligible. Most of the flavour is coming from the wood used to create the fire and the tar around the sides of the barrels and the smokehouse. Our smokehouse is over 100 years old and there are several inches of accumulated tar from decades of smoking fish.

How is this different from other commercial hot smoking methods?

For almost all the hot smoked fish you buy from supermarkets, the producers will use smoking ovens. In these, 90 per cent of the heat source is typically from electricity. They will then put in some wood kindling at the bottom of the oven to smoulder and impart some smoke flavour to the fish. This is different from the traditional way, with that hot, intense smoke really impregnating the fish. Electric smoking ovens cannot recreate the environment of a whisky barrel or smokehouse.

Do you smoke other fish?

Because the smokies were so popular, we started smoking other fish in the smokehouse and found that oily fish tended to work best. We do hot smoked salmon, trout and mackerel. We also cold smoke salmon.

How does that differ from hot smoking?

The crucial differences are the temperature of the smoke and the fact that the fish is kept away from the heat source. Despite the name, the smoke does not have to be cold, just a lot cooler than that used for hot smoking.

Do you use a different smokehouse for the cold fish?

No, we don’t. We use the same smokehouse with the beech and oak fire as we do for the smokies. We will generally do the cold smoking once the smokies have finished and been removed. The smoke is sent along what is essentially a horizontal chimney, designed to cool it down as it goes. The smoke then fills a second chamber where the salmon is laid out on trays. Because of the absence of heat, cold smoking takes a lot longer – somewhere between 12 and 24 hours, depending on how much salmon is in the chamber.

Do you use any preservatives?

No chemicals of any kind are used. The only preservatives are salt and smoke. We get all our fish fresh – the haddock for the smokies has to be caught in the north Atlantic. They are then salted before going straight into the barrels or the smokehouse. Our fish is not frozen at any point.

So, your production methods are just a continuation of a very traditional process?

Very little has changed, because very little needs to. Over the generations, smokers have continued honing their skills, but someone who worked here a century ago would recognise the Arbroath smokies we produce today.