This ancient way of preserving fish has survived decades and is being given a new lease of life. Rosalind Erskine discovers the history of smoking seafood in Scotland.
Smoked salmon is now a staple of brunch dishes and decadent hotel breakfasts, but this dish, which has become synonymous with Scotland, has been around since the 11th century, as this is the time period when we can trace smoking fish back to. We’ve got the Vikings to thank for our smoking practices, as it’s believed that they introduced smoking as a way of preserving fish to Scotland.
There are two main methods of smoking fish - the more traditional involves fish being suspended in purpose-built smokehouses over slowly smouldering wood shavings, and left for a long period of time, often overnight, to be naturally infused with smoke. A more mechanised method involves the generation of smoke via specialist condensers, where the flow of smoke in mechanical kilns is computer controlled and the fish generally spend less time than in a traditional kiln.
Fish and seafood can also be smoked on a lower key level using commercially available smaller smokers designed for domestic use, or even by the construction of rudimentary smokers using old tin boxes and wood shavings. There are two principle smoking processes utilised for fish and seafood; cold smoking, which is probably the most commonly used smoking method, where the smoke used gently infuses the fish with flavour without actually cooking it. The other method is hot smoking where the smoke is hot enough to actually cook the fish as well as flavouring it.
Salmon is probably the most popular fish species to be smoked in the UK. Farmed salmon is excellent for smoking due to its higher and more consistent oil content than wild fish. Whole skin-on salmon fillets are cured with a mixture of salt and sugar, and often some spices, over a set time, then washed and rested for at least 24 hours; before then being smoked for a number of hours, usually using hardwoods such as oak or beech.
After cooling, the salmon is portioned and prepared as required. Smoked salmon is a very distinctive product, which varies considerably according to the individual recipe of the respective smokehouse – the flavour and texture are affected both by the type of wood used for smoking and particularly by the way the actual fish is cured. Curing entails ensuring there is the right amount of salt in the finished product and all smokers will usually have their own ‘secret’ cure recipes – different flavourings, herbs and spices can all be added at this stage to give unique and individual character to the finished product.
Many other oil-rich fish are also well suited to the smoking process, including trout, mackerel and herring (to produce kippers). Halibut, tuna, scallops, mussels, oysters and prawns also work well, as do eel fillets.
Haddock is another species that is well suited to smoking, and cold smoked haddock fillets are the basis of any great kedgeree or fish pie recipe. The bright yellow colour often associated with smoked haddock is a dye, historically used to compensate for a reduced smoking time, which lowered the cost. While dye is still sometimes used, there is an increased demand for natural smoked haddock, which has a subtle, off-white colour.
Finnan haddie (or Finnan haddock) originated in the Scottish fishing village of Findon in Aberdeenshire, where whole haddock were headed, gutted and split open leaving the backbone and tail intact, then soaked in brine before being cold smoked over smouldering peat. The traditional preparation is to then roast or grill the whole pieces of fish over high heat. Finnan haddock can also be used in a traditional kedgeree, or in an Arnold Bennett omelette, or as the main fish component in the traditional Scottish soup Cullen Skink.
Cod is another common fish used for smoking, but is not usually as popular as haddock, which has a sweeter flavour.
While hot and cold smoked salmon and smoked haddock are the most popular and well known of the smoked fish, you can’t mention Scotland and smoking seafood without talking about the Arbroath Smokie.
The Arbroath Smoked is created by a traditional method of smoking. The fish are salted overnight and then tied in pairs and left to dry, then they are hung over a triangular length of wood to smoke in a barrel.
The Arbroath Smokie has enjoyed official European protection through the Protected Geographical Indication, other products of this level include Champagne, Parma Ham and even Stornoway Black Pudding. This means that only fine quality haddock, smoked in the traditional way within Arbroath can be called an Arbroath Smokie. They are also available to buy at Gary Maclean’s restaurant, Creel Caught, in Edinburgh’s Bonnie & Wild.
This method of infusing a deep, fragrant flavour to food, has recently been used to create a smoked gin. The Gin Bothy recently launched 250 bottles of this smoked gin, with botanicals that are smoked in a fisher smoke house in Arbroath.The team say this is the only smoked gin made in a protected designation of origin area, using a Smokie ‘bothy’. They worked with Alex Spink and Sons, who have been making smokies in Arbroath since 1977, applying their traditional smoking techniques to juniper, orange peel, coriander and lemon which were then distilled to create the gin.
Iain Spink, of the family business, had to relearn the traditional smoking methods - smoking haddock in a whisky barrel - as this skill had effectively died out by the 1960s. Speaking to The Scotsman, Iain said of his journey back into making Arbroath Smokies: “I never imagined for a second that I would go back into full time Smokie making again. A friend of mine asked if I’d go to Cupar farmers’ market (as a favour). I went along and took a box or two of fish, but a monster queue appeared and the whole lot disappeared in an hour and a half.”
Someone else that knows about keeping tradition alive is Rob Trotter, who has recently taken over Dunbar’s Belhaven Smokehouse, a business that has been in operation for over 45 years. Having come from working in residential property management, this is a huge step in a different direction for Rob, who explains that the chance was too good to miss. “Buying Belhaven is a real opportunity to maintain and grow the legacy of the brand, and introduce customers to quality smoked salmon and trout,” he said. “I hate to say it but shoppers have become acclimatised to mass-produced smoked salmon and don’t get the chance to taste really good quality.”
To rectify this, Rob is planning to expand the business to include a restaurant, car parking and a significant extension to their shop. He’s also excited about the huge potential for developing their E-commerce offering so that more people across the UK can enjoy Belhaven smoked salmon.
The previous owners had focused on the wholesale market, and with Covid-19 taking its toll, decided to put the business and premises on the market in November 2020. “Not only is this an attractive site, I wanted to rescue the smokehouse and brand. I want to create a destination where people come to buy our products, and a wide selection of produce from across the Lothians and beyond, but also enjoy simple, good quality food in a family friendly restaurant,” Rob said.
Belhaven smoked salmon is another product that has stuck to an original recipe - it’s a labour-intensive process as it’s dry-cured and smoked by hand using oak chips. They currently supply the prestigious Balmoral hotel as well as Edinburgh Larder, Peter’s Yard and numerous other smaller, local outlets. Rob has recently hired a new General Manager, Marie-Clare James, and her daughter who he can foresee running the shop. This investment and change in direction, Rob hopes, will safeguard the brand and traditional practices for the future and create a destination that East Lothian is proud to have on its doorstep.
Speaking of the history of smoking fish, Andy Gray, Trade Marketing Manager at Love Seafood / Seafish, said: “Originally intended as a way to preserve foods, the process of smoking also adds a different dimension to taste and texture. The smoking of fish and many other forms of seafood has been widely practiced for generations – both on a commercial scale and by many chefs and keen cooks – and can produce a great variety of enjoyable taste and texture experiences.”
It’s clear that this ancient method of preserving fish has come a long way, and with investment in heritage businesses, supporting your local fishmonger, and using smoked fish in cooking at home, it’ll continue to survive and thrive.