Across the country, food lovers are bundling themselves in thick coats and carrying piles of strange meat to the bottom of the garden. They’re not feeding the foxes and it’s far too early for a barbecue. Instead they’re nipping out for a smoke – taking advantage of the cold weather to rediscover a lost domestic craft and indulge in that most modish of foodie pursuits, home smoking.
We have a long and noble tradition of smoking across these islands. Before refrigeration, smoke and salt preservation meant that fish caught on the coast could be moved and stored without rotting. Smokehouses still stand wherever a fleet could land fish, though few of them are in operation. In the Victorian era, the heyday of the kipper, the bloater (smoked herring) and the Arbroath smokie (haddock), fleets made more efficient by steam could land tonnes of fish, which were smoked and shipped to the tables of the burgeoning urban populations. But for centuries before this semi-industrialisation of smoking, householders did it themselves, hanging a flitch of salt pork or possibly an illegally nabbed salmon, high in the kitchen chimney.
Smoke tends to drive away flies and other bugs giving food a chance to air-dry naturally. In meat and fish it is the drying that creates an internal environment hostile to bacteria. Smoke also deposits a tarry layer on the surface of the food, which seals it. It’s not rocket science; in fact, it would have been spontaneously discovered in any culture where food was stored in the same room as the hearth. Where salt was easily available and curing could take place alongside smoking, it was possible to take cheap protein such as fish and pork, which spoilt quickly, and turn it into products that would survive through the hungry winter months until next season.
It’s this same process, a little refined to make it controllable and repeatable, that we refer to today as “cold smoking”. (Not to be confused with “hot smoking” which is largely barbecuing with a bit of extra flavour.) The most popular items to smoke are salmon or bacon, and the process for both is very similar. First, the meat or fish is salted to draw out moisture. This used to be done in wooden boxes full of salt stored in a dry cellar, but these days home smokers prefer the convenience of a hefty freezer bag and a domestic fridge. Having lost a lot of its fluid content, the meat or fish is rinsed and allowed to hang in cold dry air. Originally, this would have involved a drying shed and some careful watching of the weather but, again, a modern fridge is the perfect drying environment. Overnight drying forms a sticky coating on the surface of the meat called the pellicle, to which the smoke particles can adhere. Finally, the side of salmon or bacon is moved to the smokehouse – carefully so as not to disturb the pellicle – and cold smoke from a single aromatic wood is gently played over it for up to 48 hours.
The final phase, often forgotten by novices, is to let the smoked product rest and mature so the smoky flavours of the surface can gently penetrate the meat or fish, mixing with the salt and natural flavours. It creates something so elementally delicious that you can see how it’s difficult to leave a side of freshly home-smoked bacon hanging up for long.
There are many reasons for the sudden resurgence of this ancient skill. It’s simple to learn; the set-up costs are cheap yet the results, artisanal bacon and smoked salmon, are of high value. People like the idea of re-appropriating those processes that have become industrialised – a kind of fashionable anti-corporate DIY. And perhaps, too, it’s time we rediscovered our heritage of smoking, a technique so much more appropriate to our mists and mellow fruitfulness than the barbecue.
Tim Hayward is the editor of Fire & Knives, www.fireandknives.com
The smokehouse rules
The principle of a smokehouse is to create an enclosure where smoke is generated with minimum heat. The traditional coastal smokehouses were built from wood, high and narrow, so a small, smouldering pile of oak chippings on the floor flooded the space with fragrant smoke while the fish hung out of reach of the heat.
A domestic set-up needn’t be anything like that size. If you’re lucky enough to have a disused building of any sort, from an outside lavatory to a coal bunker, then it can be pressed into service immediately. Alternatively, most garden centres stock small flat-pack wooden buildings sold as “tool stores”, which make excellent enclosures (and can still be used to store the lawnmower when not stuffed with fish). If you don’t fancy a small building then much smaller enclosures work just as well – it just means you may have to smoke smaller pieces rather than whole sides of meat or fish. A disused fridge is ideal, with the added advantage of being cool inside in the summer. A filing cabinet works well with the fire in the bottom drawer and the fish filed higher up with a few holes punched in the bottom of the metal.
As long as your smoke generator really does run cold you can even go smaller and stranger. A galvanised dustbin works well, or a plastic water butt or compost bin.
Smoke can be generated simply by lighting a long pile of sawdust with a candle or a blowlamp. This should be done on a solid surface – something like a paving slab – and after a while you’ll be able to judge the hours of burn you can expect from each centimetre of fuel.
Because you’ll probably want to smoke overnight and won’t necessarily feel like getting up to relight in the early hours it’s worth investing in something like a ProQ smoke generator – a metal mesh burning tray in the shape of a spiral labyrinth, which can burn consistently for up to 10 hours (£29.99 from www.forfoodsmokers.co.uk). For the Rolls-Royce approach, there are Bradley Smokers, a range of purpose-built, weatherproof cabinets with electrically powered burners and a mechanical feeding apparatus for fuel pellets (from £378 from www.bradleysmoker.co.uk).