Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart offers some pointers on Scotland's smoked fish
The smoking of fish is one of the few Scottish traditional practices related to food to be flourishing today. Here we provide a spotters’ guide to the differences in Scotland’s best-known smoked fish, while Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart offers his insights on some of his own favourites.
Cold smoked salmon
This is what most people recognise as smoked salmon, typically served in thin slices cut horizontal to the skin. Smoking was originally employed as a means of preserving fish, and while a longer shelf life remains a useful benefit, the principal role smoking has today is for the effects of flavour and texture it offers.
First the fresh salmon is salted, either in a brine solution or sometimes simply dry salt; additions to the cure play a role in the final flavour. Sugar is a common ingredient, but molasses, treacle, spices, rum, whisky and wine are also used. After curing, the salmon is smoked for a reasonable length of time (12–48 hours) at a lowish temperature (below 30˚ Celsius) – insufficient to cook the fish. It’s then normally left to rest and mature for about 12 hours.
Martin Wishart: ‘The best and most traditional way to make cold smoked salmon is to use wild salmon. You are looking for a salmon with a low fat content of around 14–16 per cent, as this allows a good quality of firmness and means that it won’t weep any oils when you cut into it. You don’t want a fish that has a lot of excess oil as it will affect the flavour. If you can’t get wild salmon then the best alternative is organic farmed salmon. I get mine from Benbecula and Shetland.
‘I remember being in Stornoway and buying some smoked salmon, but instead of being plastic wrapped it was carefully folded in greaseproof paper; it had a wonderfully authentic taste. Good things to serve with smoked salmon are those with a bit of bite: obviously citrus and lemon zests are the most common, but pickled cucumber, horseradish or long white radish with wasabi all work.
‘I prepare it differently from most chefs in that I slice it vertically straight down the meat and serve it with the surface pellicle; that way you get the beautiful intense smokiness followed by a light creaminess of flavour.’
Hot smoked salmon
Also known as hot roast salmon, or sometimes flaky salmon, the basic processes are similar to cold smoking, except the fish is smoked in a hotter kiln or the heat is turned up at the end of the process.
Oak or oak chips are most commonly burned (or smouldered) for both kinds of smoked salmon, with many smokehouses using ‘recycled’ oak staves from old whisky barrels. Larch, ash and beech are also used, as is peat (for example by the Summer Isles Smokehouse). Kilns range from older fashioned brick kilns (such as those at Inverawe) to widely-used stainless steel smokers.
‘This has become more popular and is widely available in supermarkets, but it’s best to eat it straight after it’s been warmed and smoked, when the flakes of meat will just break and crumble off. Because it is hot smoked, it works well in a warm dish like pasta. Just flake it in at the last minute, but be careful not to re-heat the fish. It is also nice served as it is, with a butter-based warm sauce such as a home-made hollandaise with herbs like tarragon and chervil.
‘You can also smoke it at home. Buy your own wood chips, put them in a pan with a trellis over the top, lay in the fish and cover the pan tightly. It might take a couple of attempts to get it right, but the fish really lends itself to smaller, individual smoking.’
Smokies are one of the few Scottish foods granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) by the EU. This limits the name Arbroath Smokies to haddock which have been smoked in the traditional manner within an eight-kilometre radius of Arbroath. A whole haddock is headed and gutted, then dry salted for around two hours, washed, tied in pairs by the tail and hung over metal bars, air dried then placed over a fire pit for 30–45 minutes. Iain Spink prepares them in the original way in a half-barrel laid over with hessian sacking, a portable system that allows him to prepare fresh smokies at food festivals around the country.
‘This is one of the best smoked fish. Last year I went over to Fife and had one of Iain Spink’s smokies; he pulled it straight out from under the hessian and gave it to me from the barrel. It has a rich creaminess and moisture, and fresh like that is undoubtedly the best way to eat smokies. It is also nice flaked up and served with potatoes.’
Finnans are also whole haddock headed and gutted, but in this method they are split and opened up, dry salted overnight then cold smoked over peat for 8–9 hours. The method originates from Findon, a village south of Aberdeen. A Finnan needs to be cooked before eating.
‘I get my haddie from Anstruther fishmonger David Lowrie, who gets it from Findon. We actually don’t use it a lot in the restaurant, but my favourite way to serve it is in a potato mash. I’d use a nice floury potato, like a Golden Wonder, and then add reduced double cream, butter and salt. I’d then flake the haddie in raw. If you’ve cooked it right the flakes should retain a slight translucency and you should be able just to flake them off with your thumb.
‘It’s also great in soups like Cullen skink or served with a grainy mustard or braised leeks. It’s an all-rounder.’
This is simply a fillet of haddock cold smoked, so it’s similar to a Finnan but off the bone and without the definition provided by a traditional method. Yellow dyed haddock fillets are still seen: they were originally used to mimic the colour of a properly smoked fish.
‘I recently ate smoked haddock served raw with crème-fraiche and mixed herbs and the taste of the fish really came through. Often with fish it’s about simple flavours, as you want to show off the fish itself. But just as much it is about the chef’s skill in balancing the flavours.’
Kippers are a different fish entirely – herring – which are gutted, split and brined for about half an hour, then cold smoked for anything between 4 and 24 hours. Though associated with Loch Fyne, it’s not a distinctively Scottish method and kippering traditions are strong elsewhere in the British Isles.
● Martin Wishart has held a Michelin star at Restaurant Martin Wishart in Leith since 2001. In 2007 he opened the Martin Wishart Cook School, also in Leith, and a year later set up his second restaurant in Cameron House at Loch Lomond. He also produces his own brand of smoked Shetland salmon. www.martin-wishart.co.uk