Fish smoking had always been something of a dark art to me, particularly in the days before so called artisan food producers took over Borough market, and before the internet could tell you how to do anything. Turns out, like everything, sometimes you just have to pitch in and have a go to learn.
Surely every trout fisherman starting to develop grey hairs has had at some point a tin box fish smoker. I remember asking for one for my twelfth or thirteenth birthday, and was delighted to receive one of the famous ABU smokers.
As far as it went, it was pretty good. Parents were amazed back in those days that I could provide them with smoked rainbow trout. Usually a bit muddy as they were out of the local farm pond, but less obvious was the mud when smoked. But I wasnâ€™t satisfied. What I wanted to make was that very expensive delicacy, smoked salmon. It took a while to work out it was cold smoked, and every apparatus I could think of for cold smoking looked complicated and expensive to put together.
Much later in life, after a very successful summer trip to the Naver, which provided me with two or three grilse to smoke, I was feeling flush enough to buy a piece of kit which advertised itself as a hot or cold smoker from somewhere over the pond.
Well, it produced plenty of smoke alright, but also plenty of heat, even when the heat element was turned off. It did come with a mouth-watering recipe for smoked roasted Thanksgiving turkey, which I think is best left to our cousins over there. Â Salmon came out as a sort of half cooked mush, but still surprisingly quite edible.
So I adapted it, and now smoke some very respectable stuff. Here are the rules I have come up with for smoking â€“ they may or may not be right, but I have made a lot of smoked salmon for a lot of people, and no one yet has died or sent it back!
1)Â Â Â Â Â You donâ€™t need anything expensive to smoke fish. An old shed or brick privy with a smouldering fire on the floor will do, you just need to be creative about making a source of smoke so that it is not hot when it hits the food.
2)Â Â Â Â Â Keep the temperature lowish, preferably around 20-25 degrees.
3)Â Â Â Â Â Donâ€™t be scared about over salting fish; using dry salt is fine (mix in sugar and spices if you like), an inch or so under and on top of each fillet, and half an inch at the tail end. I go for an hour per kilo of the whole fish (3 kilo fish, salt for 3 hours).
4)Â Â Â Â Â Try and smoke for a couple of days; more than anything to allow the fish to dry out a bit, following the salting. It then slices beautifully, and isnâ€™t soggy as many are in supermarkets.
5)Â Â Â Â Â Fatty farmed fish smoke quicker than lovely lean wild fish.
6)Â Â Â Â Â You can definitely make better smoked salmon than you get in the supermarket.
Other things I have smoked with some success include haggis slices, which are delicious for breakfast with an egg on top; wood pigeon breast â€“ dry salt for half an hour, and smoke for 3 or 4 hours, or until quite a bit of weight is lost. These can then be sliced paper thin, and served with parmesan slivers, rocket and balsamic dressing; duck breast, but better slightly hot smoked after a cold smoking, so they are cooked. Of course mackerel when it is plentiful is always very good. My tip is to salt it properly before smoking, and smoke it for a while longer than it seems to need. Either that, or stick it in the tin hot smoker, and enjoy it as a hot snack.
If you have the space and some ingenuity, I fully recommend trying out cold smoking. Itâ€™s just not that hard. Enjoy!