Arbroath smokies making a splash
Few Scottish delicacies are as firmly rooted as the Arbroath smokie, yet this famous fish is on the move
When Iain Spink and his mobile smoking barrel are in town, the public tend not to need directions as to where to find him – they just follow the smoke. 'Organisers are aware that what I do attracts a lot of attention,' he says, referring to the various food fairs, festivals, Highland games and farmers markets he visits on his, as he puts it, unofficial travelling Arbroath smokies roadshow year-round. 'Not only visually, but nasally as well,' Spink adds. The smell of the burning hardwood logs, it just drifts down the high street, and people stop and sniff and say oh, markets on today.
A fifth-generation maker of Arbroath smokies – the unique type of lightly smoked haddock that has practically put the Angus town on the map – Spink started working full-time in his family's well-known fish processing business RR Spink and Sons aged just 16. He quit the trade in 2001 after the family business was taken over, opting to instead pursue a degree in Applied Environmental Science. But he couldn't resist his culinary inheritance, and took up smoking again some years later with a unique twist.
Spink reinvented a traditional, perhaps as old as the Viking-era, technique of fish-smoking, traceable back to the nearby small fishing village of Auchmithie – the true home of the smokie. Much as villagers there once did, he smokes his carefully selected salted fish in the open air (weather permitting), using just an old whisky barrel, hardwood logs and hessian sacking. And with a certain added dramatic flair for food theatre, it's a method that has seen him appear at events from the BBC Good Food Show to music festivals such as T in the Park, between his bread-and-butter weekly rounds of farmers markets.
The visual spectacle hasn't been lost on TV producers, with Spink appearing on shows such as Coast, Jamies Great Britain and Rick Steins Food Heroes to teach celebrity chefs just how good a smokie can taste cooked in the most wholesome way possible. 'There's nothing horrible and artificial in there,' Spink says, summing up the simple glory of the smokie. 'All it is is haddock, salt and smoke, over a log fire.'
Spink's mobile smoking is just one among several ways, conventional and less so, in which the Arbroath smokie business has evolved and flourished since it was awarded PGI (protected geographical indication) status in 2004 – a designation which puts it on a par with Parma ham and champagne. Put simply, any smokie made outwith a five mile radius of Arbroath by law quite simply isn't an Arbroath smokie (though certain pragmatic exceptions are made for Spink on his travels). With that trading-standards umbrella of protection over their heads, it's allowed Arbroath fish-smokers to concentrate on ways of promoting not just their product's inherent qualities, but also its unique cultural and geographical heritage.
Other recent developments in the Arbroath smokies trade have included the creation of the Arbroath Smokie Trail a free downloadable guide to where visitors to the town can eat and buy the world-renowned fish. ASAP, the Arbroath Smokies Association of Producers, has also been formed an initiative which has seen five key producers of Arbroath smokies pool their resources, expertise and energies towards cutting the necessary red tape and upping production in order that up to three-quarters of a tonne a week of smokies can be air-freighted to foreign markets in the Middle East and Far East. 'It's an old faithful to us, but to foreigners it'll be a brand new product,' comments ASAP Chairman Stuart Scott – another lifelong smokies maker, with his company Stuarts Fresh Fish of this new horizon for the smokie.
Good news for fish lovers on the other side of the world, then – though they should note that for a taste of smokies at their finest, they need to come to Scotland. Either to Arbroath or, well … just follow the smoke. 'Like most things, Arbroath smokies always taste best as soon as they're made,' says Spink. 'A smokie right out of the fire, right off the stick, served with all its own natural juices in it,' he enthuses, pausing to savour the thought, 'it's just the most sublime thing imaginable.'