When I designed and built my own smoker earlier this year I was putting to bed a project that has been lurking in the back of my mind ever since I first tried smoking eels in a small Abu smoker many moons ago. I have been told numerous times since those days beside the Yorkshire Esk just how easy it is to smoke your own fish and game in anything from a tea chest to – as demonstrated recently on TV – an old Lada. The smoker I most admired belonged to the late Albert Grant, fish smoker, gillie and stalker extraordinaire. He connected a wood-burning stove to a sealed game larder on the banks of a Highland loch with 10yd of plastic pipe. The results were spectacular.
OLD CHIMNEY, NEW USE
I ran into a similar design at an estancia in Patagonia, the only difference being that Jane Williams ran her smoke underground into a sealed chamber. In each case pipes had been used to draw off the heat from smoke generated by smouldering sawdust that would then envelop fish or game for several hours in a cold, grey mist, essential if the flesh is to be imbued with the delicate flavour that is the hallmark of perfectly smoked produce. I had heard the same effect could be achieved in a tall chimney, and I had just such a flue in mind.
Many years ago the blacksmith’s shop at my Yorkshire farmhouse was where shire horses were made ready for work on the land. The old stone building has been put to many uses since, but somehow the tall brick chimney and huge pair of leather bellows used to heat the forge have survived and, with a little imagination, I thought, could be adapted as the perfect place in which to smoke fish and game. The structure was all there, but I was not sure whether the chimney would be tall enough for the smoke to cool below the 30-C mark, above which hot smoking kicks in and the flesh starts to cook. Who better to turn to for advice than the Enderby brothers, proprietors of Alfred Enderby, a fish smoking specialist in Grimsby that plies its trade in one of the town’s last surviving smokehouses? “We have endured Second World War bombs, the Cod Wars, and all the crazy EU regulations and fish policies that threatened to shut us down,” says Richard Enderby. I invited George Enderby over for lunch to canvas opinion and he gave my project the thumbs up.
Thereafter it was a simple matter to skim out the chamber, line the floor with firebricks and drop a door into the chimney breast, having fitted some thin steel bars on which to hang my fish and game. I next had to catch a fish. Not any old fish, but a large, fresh and wild salmon, for there is no truth in the adage that red kippers landed in autumn are best sent to the smokehouse – such fish are fit for one thing only, and that is to spawn and propagate their race. My June silver springer from Norway went into the freezer to await the cooler autumnal weather deemed best for smoking.
So I find myself at Grimsby docks early on a September morning, under the expert tutelage of Dave Berry, who is about to demonstrate how to fillet my fish, Grimsby-style. He scatters salt on to the table “to get a bit of purchase”, lays the fish on its side and deft-ly chops off the head before slicing into the flesh above the backbone and drawing his knife towards the tail. Almost immediately, my first mistake becomes apparent. “The flesh is a bit soft on this one, did you freeze it with the guts in?” asks Dave. “It’s best to gut and bleed the fish as soon as you catch it, so the flesh remains firm.” I am keen to absorb every detail of the operation but getting Dave to slow down is like trying to restrain a hard-pulling racehorse. In the blink of an eye he has peeled off the first fillet, slipped his knife underneath the backbone and removed the second. Interestingly, he does not turn the fish over, nor are the severed pin bones taken out at this stage as they help strengthen the flesh, which must be firm enough to hold throughout the 18-hour smoking process.
The final act is to flip each fillet scale-side up, and make a small cut where the flesh lies deepest to help the salt do its work. My fish is now ready to be dry-cured and I am handed over to George for the next stage. “Smoked salmon is eaten raw and the salting process draws out the moisture from the flesh,” he says, sprinkling salt over each fillet. “A dry-cure works best for salmon as it keeps the flesh firm.” Many smokers have developed their own secret mix for a dry-cure, which can include juniper, sugar and in Albert Grant’s case, a drop of the hard stuff. Like the Enderbys, Fiona Montgomery, who runs the Kinloch smokehouse overlooking the Kyle of Tongue in Sutherland, prefers a simple salt-only dry-cure for the salmon and venison she smokes for sportsmen, local restaurants and a thriving mail order business.”You can get carried away with exotic mixes” she says,”but I prefer the taste of salmon just as it is.”
Fiona charges fishermen £3 per kilo to smoke their catch, which is not only better if gutted, but also less expensive.”I am a great believer in gutting and bleeding fish, she says, and am amazed how few fishermen do this on the river-bank.”
My plan is to leave half of my salmon in Grimsby, and smoke the other side at home in the blacksmith’s shop. George explains that a steady, even burn is vital for success, and assures me I will achieve just that with the bag of sawdust he puts into the boot of my car. Many people insist that only hardwood sawdust will do for smoking, so I am surprised to discover the Enderbys and other local smokers favour a non-resinous softwood imported from Scandinavia. The Enderbys’ smokehouse benefits from Grimsby’s promontory site dividing the North Sea from the Humber estuary where cool, dry, easterlies provide an ideal climate for smoking. When conditions are less favourable kilns are protected from strong winds by ornate iron cowls. The burn is still affected by wind, temperature and humidity, with twice as much sawdust being used during the colder months.
It is with some trepidation that I wash my side down six hours later and hang it up in my new smoke chamber to dry. George uses a spoonful of smouldering sawdust to re-light his fires each afternoon, but I have to resort to a blowtorch to get my sawdust to ignite. By the time I go to bed smoke is still curling in thin wisps from the chimney. The slab of orange-red meat looks perfect, and goes straight into the fridge to await the blind tasting session I have planned once the side left with the Enderby brothers arrives.
It seems fitting to invite my host from Norway, Anthony Luke, to decide which side tastes better. He arrives with his girlfriend, Mary, for the final and most enjoyable act. I have to confess to a tinge of disappointment when they nominate the Grimsby side as superior in every way, although Anthony compliments me on an excellent – albeit slightly salty – first attempt, and points out that my slices from the tail are not to be compared with those I have cut from the middle of the Grimsby side. Maybe I am guilty of not washing off the salted fillet soon enough, but that is easily put right. A century of experience is no match for a few months’ enthusiasm, but I have been inspired to smoke the perfect salmon and attain the same firm texture and subtle, succulent flavour as the Enderby brothers manage on a daily basis.
George and Richard Enderby
tel 01472 342984
The Kinloch Smokehouse
tel 01847 611316