Discovering techniques for smoking and making pâtés at a traditional smokehouse in Whitby
“Even a month on the Continent, combined with intelligence, will teach you that there are many things that are better abroad. All the things that the DAILY MAIL calls English are better abroad. But there are things entirely English and entirely good. Kippers, for instance, and Free Trade, and front gardens, and individual liberty, and the Elizabethan drama, and hansom cabs, and cricket….”
-GK Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (written in 1901)
I’m staying near Whitby in Yorkshire currently, and that being the case it would be a sin not to go down to the dock there and seek out Fortune’s Kippers, a smokehouse that’s been going since 1872!
If I’d been worried about finding it, I needn’t have worried. Get anywhere near and you’ll smell it, you just have to follow your nose.
Smoking as a method of preserving fish
Smoking has been used as a method of preserving fish of various kinds (mostly oily) for centuries – mackerel, trout and salmon are all given the treatment very successfully, as are herrings. But it’s a peculiarly British (and Irish) way to preserve. In Scandinavia, Germany and The Netherlands they pickle their herrings (see my post on maatjes) rather than turn them into kippers by smoking.
The various stages of smoking
The process, at least at Fortune’s is much the same as it’s always been except that these days the fish is frozen at sea. On arrival at Fortune’s it’s defrosted and then split from from head to tail and gutted by hand.
Then they’re soaked in brine for half an hour or so to bring out the flavour.
Then they’re cured by being hung on black, tar-covered rods. The purpose of this part of the process is to allow excess oil and water to drain off.
Then an 18 hour smoking process begins. The most important element of this is the oak that’s used for the fire. Other woods are used, but it’s the oak which gives the rich flavour, and the colour to the fish.
If you can’t get to Whitby, Jaffy’s kippers, from J Lawrie and Sons, have just reached the top fifty in the 2016 Great Taste Awards.
How to cook kippers
You can cook kippers pretty much any way, but I was astonished to be told that it’s also possible to cook them along the lines of my absolutely fastest way to cook spinach method. Instead of the colander you use a tall, heat-proof jug which you’ve warmed first. Put the kipper into the jug head first, and then pour over boiling water, leaving just the tail out of the water. Leave for about five minutes, then remove, dry gently and serve with butter. This method of cooking kippers is called ‘jugging’.
If you want to treat yourself, spend a few days at Beadnell Towers Hotel, where you can have Crastor kippers, grilled and served with butter, black pepper, and fresh brown bread for breakfast…. a feast for a king!
Making kipper pâté
Unless they’ve also been marinated (that’s a post for later) I struggle with the bones in kippers. I love the flavour, and I know I’m a wimp. In any case a good solution is to make them into pâté. The recipe I use, below, is based on a Really Useful Book which I’ve had for years (it was published in 1969). Written by Catherine Althaus and Peter ffrench-Hodges, it’s encouragingly titled, ‘Cook Now: Dine Later’.
NB – although kippers in plastic, which can be cooked in the plastic can be used, the flavour isn’t as good.
Recipe for old-fashioned kipper pâté
- about 115g/4 oz kipper fillets
- couple of knobs of butter, plus more either for sealing or for serving with toast
- 1 dessert spoon olive oil
- 2 tbsp Philadelphia cream cheese
- 1 tbsp whisky
- juice and zest from half a lime, use the other half for garnish (or, obviously you can use lemon – especially if you are doubling the quantity.
- Indonesian long pepper – no salt!
- Cook the kippers fillets, as directed on the packet.
- Mix all the ingredients together in a blender (or use a stick blender).
- Pack into a couple of ramekins, and put into the fridge over night for the flavours to meld.
- Serve the following day, garnished with the rest of the lime, and with hot buttered toast.
will be better. Every cursed thing will walk kind.
Honeys, everything will be kippers and glitter”
-Roddy Lumsden, in So Glad I’m Me
“Then came a puzzling object, hot, dark brown in colour, and smelling strongly of smoke; it might be the mummified remains of a fish that has crawled up some chimney by mistake. I scrapped a fragment of this anatomical specimen and found it strange to the taste but not bad; not bad at all.
Kippers and haddocks nowadays are for me one of the delights of England, and I wish certain friends in that country, instead of sending me stupid novels to read, would hollow out the printed text with a chisel and then insert a kipper or two. How grateful I would be.”
-Giuseppe Orioli, Adventures of a Bookseller, 1938
Below, listen to Bella Hardy singing The Herring Girl