The story behind Arbroath smokies
Its name now protected by law, the Arbroath smokie is one of Angus's enduring food emblems
The origin of Angus's most famous delicacy is thought to stretch as far back as the eleventh century. Arbroath smokers stick proudly to traditional methods, making an Arbroath smokie is as historic as a meal gets, as Catharina Day finds out
Nowadays in the Fit o’ the Toon, the area of land given to attract fishermen to Arbroath in the 1800s, there are still many artisanal fishmongers making smokies in their backyards to their own subtly different family methods. The haddock that is preserved in this way is the most delicious and famous delicacy to come from this area.
Surnames among the fisherfolk such as Spink, Cargill, Swankie and Smith, recur here again and again. Many families came from the fishing settlement of Auchmithie, three miles northeast along the coast, where the small community claims Scandinavian roots that stretch back to the Vikings who came to the area in the eleventh century.
These settlers may have brought with them their traditional hot-smoked method of preserving haddock. Instead of splitting, salting and drying the fish – the usual practical way of preserving what was not sold or eaten fresh – the Auchmithie fisherwomen removed only the head and guts. They then salted and cooked the haddock in the smoke of a fire of hardwood enclosed within a pit or wooden cask sunk into the ground. They carefully monitored the smoke, regulating it with layers of damp hessian cloth to produce the unmistakeable hardened bronze skin encasing juicy white flesh that pulls easily off the bone. Once smoked, the fish would keep for up to a week and was much superior in taste to simple dried fish.
Arbroath was keen to stimulate its fishing industry pursuing herring, white fish and shellfish. So, in 1705, Robert and James Cargill and their families were encouraged to work from Arbroath by the town’s magistrates. However, the laird of Auchmithie, the Earl of Northesk, wasn’t having this – especially as the fishermen paid to use his beach – and he took out a legal case in Edinburgh against both the magistrates and the Cargills. The court agreed that the Auchmithie fishermen were the Earl’s serfs and were not free to move away from the village. They had to move back.
A harbour was built in Auchmithie and by the end of the 1800s the population of Auchmithie village was 400, with 12 white fish boats, six large herring boats and 20 small lobster and crab boats. The reputation of the smokie, or lucken as it was also called, grew with the area’s improved rail links to both Forfar and Dundee, which became a ready market as it grew and prospered.
In 1826 only three fishing boats operated from Arbroath, but gradually families from Auchmithie moved to the town, attracted by the land and improved harbour. By 1881, there were 92 boats. The building of the Bell Rock lighthouse was a terrific boost to Arbroath’s trade and shipping, and work was plentiful. The industry continued until the early 1980s when the fish moved further north, making it impractical to catch them and return to Arbroath. Now most of the haddock is landed in Peterhead or Shetland – although one Arbroath boat still operates out of Aberdeen.
More recently, the uniqueness of the smokie has been safeguarded with its registration as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) under the EU’s scheme to protect food names. Nothing can be called an Arbroath smokie unless it is a haddock, smoked in the traditional way and made within an 8km radius of Arbroath. Iain Spink’s business is an example of how the smokie is being marketed now. He has taken the smoking process out on the road, showing the public how it is done at food fairs and farmers’ markets using the traditional half whisky barrel, hardwood logs and hessian sacks. The fish are salted, tied by their tails and hung in pairs over the smoke sticks, which in turn hang over the smouldering fire. Then they are covered for about 45 minutes until cooked. Vacuum packing keeps the smokie fresh for up to two weeks, making it easier to post around the world – a flourishing outlet for most of the local smokers.
The fishmongers and producers remaining in the Fit o’ the Toon include Alex Spink, Derek Spink, M&M Spink, M&M Smith,E&O Fish and the two Scott brothers. As well as haddock, hake and trout are also given the Arbroath treatment, and a variety of smokie pâtés are on offer, while William Spink of M&M Spink is famed for his hot-smoked salmon, which he gets from Shetland.