Smoking Scottish seafood with peat

Peat-smoking as an alternative to wood-smoked seafood

The unmistakable whiff of peat smoke is something we associate with crofting townships or whisky distilleries. For a few Scottish fish smokers, it’s the sweet smell of success, as David Pollock discovers.

Peat’s profile in the Scottish food and drink industry comes from whisky distillers drying germinated malt using fires created with peat fuel. This gives all such whiskies a particularly smoky aroma, and those which use a large amount in the malt drying process – such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg and the other whiskies of Islay – a particularly overpowering scent and taste that’s generally considered quite off-putting by those who haven’t yet developed a nose for it.

In which case the use of peat rather than the traditional wood when smoking salmon and seafood in some smokehouses around the north-west coast of Scotland might be greeted with caution by those who remain wary of their stronger Scotches or, indeed, the smell of burning peat. The minority who deal in it swear by it, though, as a deserving alternative to wood-smoked seafood.

‘What peat-smoking does for the fish,’ says Christopher West, general manager of the Hebridean Smokehouse on North Uist, ‘is impart a warm, aromatic fl avour. The flavour of the fish is still there, in fact it’s accentuated if anything, with a kind of sweet, peat-smoked backbone.

That’s one surprising thing, actually. With shellfish and particularly with scallops the peat accentuates the natural sweetness of the shellfi sh to an incredible degree. People often ask if we add sugar, which is a common additive to shellfish, but in fact we don’t use any at all.’

Not all are absolutely convinced, though, even in the West Highlands where peats burn in plenty of hearths. ‘I’ve tasted peat-smoked salmon before,’ says Alastair Gordon of the Sleepy Hollow Smokehouse in Ormiscraig near Ullapool, who smoke their fish using wood. ‘It tastes good, but it can be a little overpowering for me. I prefer it only lightly smoked. It’s all a matter of taste, of course.’ Would he consider selling it? ‘It’s something we’d like to try in the future, actually.’

Whether peat-smokers like the Hebridean Smokehouse, Summer Isles Foods in Achiltibuie near Ullapool and Andy Race Fish Merchants in Mallaig are ahead of the curve or just marrying two distinctive Scots flavours into one specialist range of products, there’s little doubt that peat offers a sense of terroir, a flavour of the land. According to Keith Dunbar of Summer Isles Foods, ‘In our experience the peat from different areas can produce smoke with different flavours: some quite acrid, some quiet sweet. The peat bank we use at Achnahaird Bay near Achiltibuie produces a nice sweet smelling peat smoke which we mix50:50 with oak shavings so we get a stronger smoke flavour but one that is not overwhelming.’

A Hebridean Smokehouse
Clachan, North Uist, Western Isles, HS6 5HD
Locally reared and landed fish has been smoked on North Uist for over thirty years, for more than ten of those by Fergus and Anne Granville, and is stocked from London's Fortnum & Mason to Edinburgh's Valvona & Crolla. Once known as Mermaid…
B Andy Race Fish Merchants
The Harbour, Mallaig, Highland, PH41 4PX
Andy Race Fish Merchants are renowned for their Scottish peat-smoked fish, including kippers, organic salmon and shellfish, all traditionally hot and cold smoked without using any dyes. Having supplied to many of Scotland’s most prestigious hotels for…