Smoking hot fish
- Donald Reid and Sarah Milne
- 10 May 2017
Arbroath smokies are special, but there's even more you can cook over a barrel, according to Iain Spink
If there's a market or festival happening in the Northeast of Scotland and you get a whiff of smoke – smokie smoke from a beech and oak wood fire – you know you're in luck.
Iain Spink, a fifth generation maker of Arbroath smokies and author of The Arbroath Smokie Bible, has been instrumental in raising the profile of the traditional delicacy with his compelling smoking road-show which sees him cooking fish in the time-honoured manner laid over a hardwood fire in wooden barrels and draped in swaths of hessian sacking.
While it's haddock you need to make Arbroath smokies, Spink also brings along a box or two of trout and cooks them in the same way – and as the snaking queues of folk get to his stall to buy their fish, still warm, wrapped in greaseproof paper, there are plenty who ask specifically for the moister, richer pink flesh of the trout imbued with that intense, fresh smoke flavour. It may not have the heritage, or the fame, but freshly smoked hot trout has the taste to rank right alongside the smokie as among the very finest street food to be found in Scotland.
The first Arbroath smokie was created when a fish store caught fire, destroying barrels of salt-preserved haddock. The following morning, the townsfolk found the fire had cooked the fish and that it tasted good.
Or so the legend goes. The more likely story is that the traditional smoking method was handed down by generations of fishing families, many of whom had Scandinavian ancestors, and for whom preserving fish was a necessity to see them through the winter months.
The Arbroath smokie was one of the first Scottish products to achieve PGI protected food status, which means that only haddock smoked using traditional methods within a five-mile radius of Arbroath can be called Arbroath smokies – a campaign spearheaded by fifth generation fish processors and master smokie makers RR Spink.
The haddock (only haddock can be used) are salted then left overnight to dry. They are then hung over a special barrel or pit containing a hardwood fire. The top of the barrel is covered with a lid and sealed around the edges with wet sacks (often jute or hessian), helping create a very hot, humid and smoky fire. The intense heat and thick smoke is essential if the fish are to be cooked, not burned, and to help achieve the distinctively strong, smoky taste of an Arbroath smokie. The smoking time is usually around 30-40 minutes but this can vary due to the size of the fish, quality of wood and the weather conditions. An experienced smokie maker knows exactly when they are ready.