Bound by kipper ties
UNCHANGING FORTUNE’S: For 140 years little has altered at Fortune’s Kippers. Chris Berry goes behind the scenes of a very Yorkshire institution. Pictures by Tony Bartholomew.
ENRIETTA Street in Whitby is a national treasure. This lone cobbled single-track lane that leads to the cliff edge on the south side of town is a period drama producer’s dream. It’s as though little has changed here for centuries and it is still home to one of the town’s longest established and best loved businesses, Fortune’s Kippers. This year the family celebrates 140 years of trade.
Forget Dracula, Goth weeks, folk weeks, Whitby Abbey and Whitby jet. Up here time stands still and the familiar fragrance of oak-smoked herring is a reminder to all of childhood days when families such as mine made their way beyond the 199 steps to the abbey, rounding the corner to take in the aroma from the smoke house.
Change is clearly not a word in the vocabulary of Whitby’s last surviving kipper enterprise. The family has used the same smoke house and shop for more than 90 years and the original smoke house was situated just behind their present premises. They’ve not moved and have no intention of doing so.
“We’re still smoking the kippers the way we have always done since our great great grandfather William started in 1872,” says Barry Brown who manages the smoke house and shop in partnership with his brother Derek. They are the fifth generation of the Fortune dynasty to run the business, sons of Jean Brown and grandsons of William Fortune, who ran it as the third generation.
“The splitting of the herrings is straightforward and repetitious. Everything is done by hand. Once they are split and gutted they are soaked in brine for 40 minutes and then hung on tenterhooks on what we call a balk. The herrings are then taken into the smoke house where they are smoked for 18 hours and over three fires. The length of smoking can vary a little because we won’t put them into the shop until we feel they are golden brown and ready. They go in as herrings. They are still wet fish at that time, but they come out as a kipper.
“We use a mix of beech and oak, with a bed of softwood to start the fire. The oak is too dense to light on its own. It all depends on how long we want the fires to burn and how big we want them. The evening fires burn for the longest but there are also times when we put a fire on at lunchtime for about an hour or so to get a few ready for the afternoon if we need to.”
Inside the smoke house the walls are covered with a tar made from the steam,