Doing my family genealogy a couple of winters back, I traced the Scottish side as far back as the 18th century to Arbroath, home of the smokie. A few miles north of Dundee, this fishing village reeks of oak and smoke as the locals artisanally hot-smoke the haddock. It’s one of the protected foods (PGI) of Britain.
I visited Alex Spink’s smokery at 7am while they were building the fire to smoke the cured haddock. The fish are paired and tied with hemp twine and hung over a wooden lathe or ‘kiln stick’. Hemp contains oil so the string doesn’t burn, is difficult to get hold of nowadays but the area was a flax spinning centre in the 19th century. The phrase ‘done to a turn’ derives from the half hour that it takes for the haddock to turn a golden brown. The lathes are then lifted out and switched around to smoke the other side.
Unfortunately most of the haddock are now caught in Norwegian waters: the British ones aren’t big enough.
Gary, the head smoker at Alex Spink, does this every morning. He also smokes and colours haddock filets, hanging them to cold smoke in a dark cupboard – they look like delicate but yellowing handkerchiefs hanging up on a line. They also hot-smoke salmon, but it’s nothing like the bland stuff you buy in supermarkets, rather it is a mahogany-hued deeply oaked piece of ‘red fish’.
Most of the fishing families are called Spink (Scots for ‘active or agile’), Cargill or Smith and even today you will see several smokie establishments called Spink. Everyone is related but sometimes, suggested a laughing tradesman, the families are rivals ‘they all can’t stand each other’.
The women would wear red striped skirts and blue flowery blouses and according to one 18th century cobbler, had bigger feet than the men. Before the development of harbours, these doughty wives would carry their menfolk on their backs to and from their boats in the sea, skirts kilted up, so that the men’s feet remained dry. The fishwives were responsible for selling the fish, they had long rounds inland and up the coast. A fisherman would never marry outside their community: he needed the skills of a woman brought up to the life.
Speaking to a local woman she remembered from her childhood that ‘the fisherfolk didn’t mix with anyone else: they had their own culture and ways’.
Arbroath Smokie pancake
For the pancake:
- 55 g plain flour
- 140 ml milk of your choice
- 1 egg
- pinch baking powder
- pinch salt
- a pat butter
For the sauce
- 600 ml Double cream
- 1 Arbroath Smokie, all bones and skin removed, flaked
- pinch mace
- white pepper to taste
- bunch Parsley to garnish
For the pancakes
- Mix the pancake ingredients together, leave to rest for 20 minutes.
For the sauce
- In a pan on a low heat, pour in the double cream and warm.
- Add the fish, mace, pepper, parsley
To make the pancakes:
- Butter the pan lightly.
- Pour the pancake mix into a pre-heated large flat crepe or frying pan, sliding the mixture around so that you have a thin layer.
- Allow to cook slowly so that the underside goes golden and bubbles a little. Flip over the pancake carefully and add the sauce.
- After a few minutes cooking so that the other side is a light golden, fold the pancake over the top so that it is a semi-circle. Serve hot.
Arbroath Smokie paté
- One pair Arbroath Smokies, boned and skinned
- 225 g cream cheese
- 150 ml double cream
- 1 juice and zest of lemon
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- Blend all the ingredients together.
- Press into ramekins and chill.
- Serve with hot toast, oat cakes or cheese biscuits
Arbroath Smokie kedgeree
- Pair Arbroath Smokies
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 eggs, hard boiled, shelled and halved
- 250 g orzo pasta, cooked in salty water, drained
- Large pat butter or ghee
- 1 small brown or white onion, finely sliced
- bunch flat leaf parsley
- tsp mustard seeds
- pinch cumin seeds
- pinch coriander seeds
- 1 lemon to garnish
- 1 small red chilli, deseeded and sliced (optional)
- Place the smokies into a wide deep frying pan. Pour in enough boiling water to just cover them and add the bay leaves. Simmer for around five minutes then remove the fish to a plate where you can now easily lift out the spine, bones and remove the skin. Leave aside.
- Use the strained water and extra hot water to parboil the orzo until almost cooked. Put aside.
- Using the wide pan on a low heat, add the butter and onion slices.
- Add the spices.
- Then add the cooked orzo, the fish and finally the halved boiled eggs, cover with the lid until the eggs are warm. Scatter with parsley, squeeze over the lemon juice and chopped chilli if desired and serve.
The lovely David Wilson at Peat Inn taught us how to skin and bone smokies. Take a deep dish, just big enough to take the fish flat (in my case a roasting tin) and pour boiling water over the fish, to cover if possible. Leave for 15 minutes and everything will fall away in your hands.
From somewhere I have a recipe for individual smokie pots. Layer lightly cooked spinach in the bottom of a ramekin, add some flaked smokie, top up with cream, scatter with a little grated cheese and pop into a hot oven to brown for 15 minutes.
Yes one of the fish shops also taught me to do that.
smokie pots sounds good!
I love smokies! Haven’t seen them in any fishmongers for years. Used to buy them in Ealing when we lived near there but Kent – nada. A friend used to bring some for us from Scotland but she longer goes – her parents no longer live there. The cost of delivery for an online order for two or three fish makes it a very expensive treat. If you know of any purveyors in Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone – please let me know!
I know they are sold at Billingsgate, therefore must be bought by fishmongers. There are lovely aren’t they? Next time in Scotland, go to a smoking house in Arbroath and taste them hot off the rack.