The art of smoking
- Credit: Archant
The ancient art of smoking food is being reinvented for modern palates. Linda Duffin visited two smokehouses at the very different stages of their development. Photography: Sarah Lucy Brown
Nobody knows who first discovered that brining and smoking stopped food from spoiling. Maybe a caveman who found that his haunch of woolly mammoth kept longer when he hung it above his fire. But once upon a time these were essential preserving techniques, a way of keeping meat and fish through the hungry months of winter, and the methods can be traced back thousands of years.
Nowadays, in the age of refrigeration and canning, and when fresh produce can be flown from one side of the world to the other in a matter of hours, we don’t have to cure and smoke food to keep ourselves alive. But we do it anyway because it tastes so good.
Sometimes the techniques are the same our ancestors would have used, just wood shavings burning on the floor of a shed with the brined meat or fish hanging above it. Sometimes modern kiln technology is employed, with the produce being smoked in a metal cabinet plugged into the mains and equipped with temperature controls and timers.
This is a tale of two smokehouses. The first is in the fishing port of Lowestoft and it has been in continuous use since 1844. Stepping inside the Anchor Smokehouse is, in many ways, like time travel. Behind five wooden doors are the original smoking sheds, or houses, their tall walls black and glistening from more than 160 years of fish oils and smoke.
Malcolm Bullen, who has worked alongside owner John Raven for 35 years, says at its peak there would have been 13 or 14 men working there, pickling, brining and smoking, climbing high inside the houses and straddling the slippery wall bars to hang up fish in silvery, gleaming tiers.
“This big one would have taken roughly 160-180 stone of fish,” Malcolm tells me, gesturing to one of the doors. “That’s thousands of fish, mostly herring for kippers. One of the smaller houses would hold roughly 30 stone.” Their current operation is on a smaller scale but even so, Malcolm reckons he has filleted literally millions of fish in the time he has worked there.
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They have won national awards for their fish and they are justifiably proud of what they do to maintain centuries-old traditions, but it is a gruelling job.
“It’s always cold in here, it has to be,” says Malcolm. In the notoriously bitter winter of 1963/64 he got frostbite in his fingers. He recalls: “As we were pulling the fish out of the water and laying them onto the bench, they were freezing, it was that cold. There were icicles forming.”
Malcolm and John put in upwards of 80 hours a week apiece. John’s daughter Gemma used to work with them, but John says there was no future in it for her.
“I’ve had cancer, I’m 72, me and Malcolm can’t keep going forever. Gemma has left the business because she couldn’t run it on her own without us. I’ve been told I can sell the site to developers and I’ve discussed it with my wife and decide to sell up.”
It will mean the passing of a piece of Suffolk history, but John doesn’t believe he could sell it as a going concern. And Malcolm admits closing the old place down would be a relief.
“To be quite honest I’d welcome it,” he tells me as he fillets yet another herring. “The old body’s beginning to tell me it’s time to have some ‘me time’. You get up at 2 o’clock in the morning and you don’t get home ‘til about half past four, five o’clock in the afternoon. That’s a long old day and you do that six days a week. It’s a hard life.”
So does that mean the baton is passing to a new generation, using the modern kiln techniques that John and Malcolm are frankly dismissive of? There are still other traditional smokehouses in Suffolk – Emmett’s of Peasenhall and Pinneys in Orford, for instance. But those methods don’t work for Tim and Gill Matthews, of the Artisan Smokehouse in Falkenham near Felixstowe.
They operated their award-winning business from their home in Trimley St Martin until opening purpose-built premises in September last year. They had no choice, says Tim.
“If you try to rent somewhere saying you’re going to smoke food, landlords automatically imagine there’s fish scales everywhere, there’s a smell of fish everywhere, there’s grease everywhere, there’s smoke everywhere, there’s black stuff running down the walls, which is not at all what we do. We’re very clean, the smoke is generated at a certain temperature so it’s a very clean burn.
“Everything needs to be wipe-clean and stainless steel for us. We haven’t got 100 years of history doing it here so we have to fit in with whatever the Public Health Officers demand that we adhere to.” But that doesn’t mean an inferior product, in Tim’s view.
“We want consistency in what we do and the way to get consistency is not to have burning wood on the floor. I want to burn at a constant temperature for a set period of time. To me the art is in the curing in the first place, not the smoking.” They smoke 50 or 60 different products, including oils and mushrooms as well as meat and fish. And as befits a new generation, they market via social media and mostly sell online.
“We send products all across the UK, in fact all over Europe now, but it goes straight to the end user rather than via a wholesaler or retailer,” says Tim. “It means we can make the most amount of money out of the products that we make.” And where one business closes, perhaps another one opens. Tim sees a healthy future for artisan food producers of all types.
“I think people want something special, something bespoke, something as a treat,” he says. “Food is perhaps moving away from the mainstream retailers and going a bit more rural, with people wanting to support their local businesses, wanting to support the guy in the shed rather than supporting Mr Tesco or Mr Sainsbury.”
Chorizo in Rioja
Tim’s signature recipe, made with cooking chorizo redolant with smoked paprika. Try it with crusty bread to mop up the juices.
Ingredients per person:
2 links of cooking chorizo
1 glass of Rioja
A splash of balsamic vinegar
Slice the chorizo, heat a frying pan and cook the sausage on both sides until burnished. Pour in the red wine and let it reduce to a shiny, sticky glaze. Add a splash of balsamic, stir, and serve