Up in smoke
In a fshing village by the North Sea in Northumberland, a family business produces kippers using methods that have barely changed for centuries. Carolyn Hart soaks up the atmosphere. Photographs by Andy Sewell
It was with a merry cry that I greeted Jeeves as he brought in the cofee and kippers.’ Many people when confronted with a morning kipper may feel the same as Bertie Wooster – not only is smoked herring delicious to eat but, as we now know, it’s also packed with omega-3, vitamin D, calcium, phosphorous and selenium. And it’s a sustainable fsh that’s relatively cheap to buy – a miracle food. Fortified with a kipper, Bertie was able to tackle many pressing issues involving aunts, Milady’s
Boudoir and such troublesome novelists as Daphne Dolores Morehead. These days it’s Alzheimer’s and heart attacks rather than Aunt Agatha that threaten one’s peace of mind and they may both be warded of by omega-3 – but the kippers themselves remain pretty much the same as they’ve always been. As does the method of smoking them.
People have been eating smoked fsh for millennia – since 2000bc in the case of the Irish. The Romans paid large sums of money for smoked Black Sea tuna packed into jars, and whatever the Romans ate, Britons were eating shortly after. By 1349 smoked fsh was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.
This blueprint for a smokehouse has barely changed in 700 years. Despite seven centuries of practice allied to some recent revolutionary new technology, when it comes to kippers you simply cannot improve on a brick chimney full of smoke. And that becomes abundantly clear the minute you set foot in the small fshing village of Craster in Northumberland.
Turning through a stone arch, the road winds down to the harbour, a tiny semicircle of stone overlooked by a row of small cottages. Beyond the harbour entrance lies Little Carr, a leng th of rock resembling a half-submerged Russian submarine, a nd beyond t hat t he g rey-brow n Nor t h Sea stretches mistily to the horizon. But it’s the smell of smoke emanating from a cluster of buildings just above t he harbour t hat really ar rests t he attention. This is where the Robson family has been smoking kippers since the 1900s.
Neil Robson is the fourth generation to take up smoking, following on from his father, Alan, and his great-grandfather, James, who rented the yard
on a yearly basis before buying it from the Craster family in 1906. ‘It was always kippers,’ Neil Robson tells me now. ‘It was part of my life, out with the local fishermen, or going to North Shields with my father to buy herring. My mother worked the splitting machine and I used to come here after school and stir the salt in the brine to make it dissolve.’
His father, Alan, 89, still makes a daily visit to the smokehouse, but it’s Neil who runs the business now, producing 7,000 kippers a day with the help of 15 people. To watch the process is to be sent back to a pre-modern world. The smokehouse itself was built in 1856, a 20ft-high brick chimney with slats at the top that open according to the wind direction. It operates at the end of a small factory, decorated in a mix of reddish-brown, ochre and black, which is crammed with racks of herring tended by workers in plastic aprons and blue hairnets. The smell is astonishing – a buttery, fishy smoke that invades your hair and clothes, gets in the back of your throat and reappears with redoubled vigour much later in the train going home.
There is some disagreement as to who invented the actual kipper. They’re supposed to have originated in Craster but a major contender for the title is a John Woodger from Seahouses just up the coast; but it could have been someone from Cley next the Sea in Norfolk – unlikely, if you’re talking to a Northumbrian. Whoever it was, ‘kippers were invented for a shelf life’, Neil tells us, ‘so they could be kept and eaten for longer.’
In his great-grandfather’s day, the business followed the herring as they migrated down the coast to Suffolk. Alan can remember his grandfather ‘taking the “girls” – all in their 60s – down to Lowestoft to work with the herring landings’. Indeed, the reason a kipper is so called is because, traditionally, the girls who followed the herring would kip in guesthouses as they moved down the coast, following the shoals of fsh.
In the old days, the business depended on the catch – herring was landed only from around mid-May to the end of September; if a gale blew up, there was no fsh. But for the past 15 years Neil has been getting his herring from Norway because they’re ‘the right size, roughly 300g, bigger than British herring, and oily enough to smoke’. Some 300 tons of them a year arrive in frozen packs. They are defrosted on racks and then fed into the herring splitter. German in orig in, built in the 1960s and designed like the inside of a clock, with a plate that spins round, whisking the fsh of to be
The smell is astonishing – a buttery, fishy smoke that invades your hair and clothes and gets in the back of your throat
split and then deposited down a chute into a box, it’s the only piece of machinery in the factor y. Everything else is done by hand, including the gutting, which is carried out by a team of four or fve. One of them, Jackie, has been here 40 years, with time of for children. ‘Ever yone has their own methods,’ she says. After gutting, the fsh are put into brine for 20 minutes and then hung on metal frames with tenterhooks.
If you wanted to shoot a flm involving scenes of devilish medieval tor ture, you could probably make a decent stab at it by flming in the Craster smokehouse chimney. Pitch black with nearly 200 years of shiny, sticky tar oozing from the walls, it is crisscrossed with blackened steel beams from which the herring hang like bristles over the brick foor below. Firing up is done by Gordon Atkinson, who organises nine piles of ash chippings beneath the hanging fsh and sprinkles each with oak sawdust before light ing t hem wit h a blow torch. Immediately sparks from the fre begin drifting upwards as the fames begin to catch, illuminating the chimney in a smoky fickering red.
The herring go in wet from the brine and are smoked for 15 to 16 hours – to start with on a slow fre between 12 and 4pm so that they don’t cook. Between 4 and 9pm, the fres are stoked up a bit and then stoked again overnight when the kippers are left alone until they’re taken out at 7am.
Remaining, even in the doorway, for any length of time in the smokehouse chimney leaves you feeling as kippered as the fsh, so it’s a relief to back out and turn your attention to the fnished product. A smoked kipper is a thing of beauty – head burnished gold and silver, t he f lesh, chestnut brown like a piece of weathered old wood. ‘They get that colour,’ Neil explains, ‘from the changes of temperature in the fres, and also the brine. If you don’t soak them in brine, they don’t change colour and come out looking limp and horrible.’
Kippers are not only a thing of beauty but also delicious, as we discover later in the Robsons’ cafe, built across the yard from the smokehouse in the 1970s and now run by Neil’s stepsister, Vanessa. The cafe has a grandstand view of the restless sea, and the turning tide and, if it weren’t obscured by a sea f ret enveloping t he village, t he r uins of Dunstanburgh Castle to the north as well – it’s the perfect place for a kipper and a poached egg, or even the speciality of the house, a kipper sandwich, something that even Jeeves never equalled.
Craster kippers, £6.99 per kg, from Waitrose
A smoked kipper is a thing of beauty – head burnished gold and silver, the fesh, chestnut brown
Below Neil and Alan Robson carry on a smoking business that started in the 1900s
Below the splitting machine is the only non-manual operation in the factory