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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - FOOD & DRINK -

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

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