Steve’s Sojourns: Smoking in Seahouses
At first glance it seems that Seahouses is one of those old north east fishing villages that have been swallowed up by modern developments. Yet perched above the harbour the old village still remains with its narrow streets and fishermen’s cottages. In one such street you’ll find Swallow Fish and when you walk through the door the old range, low beamed ceiling laden with working fishing tools take you back a hundred or so years in an instant.
Old sepia photographs smothering the walls seem to fit easily with the modern display cabinets holding crabs, lobsters; prawns and kippers whilst the Newcastle United scarf wrapped around the neck of the lad who serves you does not seem at all out of place with his yellow wellies and white coat.
“Yes people always find the shop fascinating.” said Patrick Wilkin who is maintaining the practice of producing kippers said to have started here in the nineteenth century. “We love that, as getting over the history of what we’re trying to do here is just important to us as keeping the traditional skills alive. What we’re finding is that people really want the natural goodness back in their food. No additives just what you see is what you get.”
A former fisherman, son of a fisherman and once a member of the Seahouses’ lifeboat crew Patrick dressed crabs here when he was a lad and is passionate about keeping the old traditions alive. “It’s not easy some days.” he says “In the old days the fish were landed in the harbour and rolled up here in barrels but the ban on herring fishing in the North Sea UK waters means I get up at 2 a.m. some mornings to drive to the fish quay at North Shields. We also check the fires in the smoke house throughout the night to ensure they’re just right so they produce the best quality product.”
Traditional kippers are produced by first splitting the herring, they are then brined (marinated in a plain solution of salt and water). The salmon is dry salted by given a thick layer of salt at the head and a thin one at the tail before smoking over shavings for about 3-4 days.
No one’s exactly sure but the kipper is thought to have been ‘invented ‘ in the village when one morning in 1840 John Woodger discovered a fire in his herring warehouse, managing to recue some of the barrels he found the smoked fish inside didn’t taste too bad and decide to investigate further.
“We have three smoke houses and getting them just right is the biggest part of what we do. Different fish such as haddock or salmon, prawns and mussels require different amounts of smoke and time so they have to be placed on different racks and when I’m clambering about high up there beside the racks I’m checking on them all the time. You have to be careful with the fires, for example if it’s a blustery day outside the wind can get in through the main doors that open on to the street and cause all sorts of uneven smoking with the draft and the kippers have to be smoked for 16 hours so we need to be vigilant.”
Today they employ the very same methods of smoking as were performed on this site all those years ago. Using traditional oak sawdust which has no additives, preservatives or colourings of any kind and we let the natural flavours speak for themselves.
Interesting to note too that there are no aluminium bars here for the fish to be suspended from in the smoke house. The company still uses traditional wooden tenterhooks, “It’s where the expression comes from as you can get very sore fingers when placing the fish on the nails and then hanging the wooden bars up.” The walls of the smoke house seem to have been painted in a black shiny paint but it’s actually just less than 200 years of smoke and tar!