When it comes to consuming seafood, many people like to try something new, such as an exotic kind of fish from another part of the world, or other kinds of edible sea creature altogether. But some consider themselves to be traditionalists, and prefer familiar tastes.
To some Britons ’traditional’ means fish and chips in batter, but nothing is more traditional in the history of fish consumption than smoking. To get a smoked fish delivery is to be sample a culinary treat enjoyed for thousands of years.
This is certainly not an originally British practice, although the UK has produced a number of distinctive variants on this theme. Indeed, there would not even have been such a thing as ‘Britain’ when the method began.
Just when smoking fish started is something lost in the mists of prehistoric time. It may well date back to stone age times, when people living by the sea, lakes or rivers would have ample opportunities to catch fish and find it convenient to smoke them as a means of preservation.
This would help dry the flesh and also apply a filmy coating to it to ward off bacteria, all of which would slow down any decay.
With modern fridges and freezers being a long time coming, it should come as no surprise that this method of preservation was maintained down the ages. Smokehouses existed all over medieval England and it was not just fish that was smoked.
Salting offered an alternative method of preservation, and is still commonly used in places like the Caribbean today, but smoking fish provided more flavour and was an obvious step when salt was not readily available, which is never a problem on small islands where everyone lives close to the sea.
As with any other method of food preparation, distinctive local recipes have emerged. Perhaps the best known British example is the Arbroath smokie, a kind of smoked haddock that actually originated a few miles north of Arbroath in the small village of Auchmithie, although production moved to Arbroath in the early 20th century.
The fish are smoked over a sawn-off whisky barrel, and the tradition has been maintained to this day, making it one of Scotland’s most distinct foods.
Smoked haddock also appears in another traditional Scottish dish, Cullen Skink. This takes its name from the town of Cullen in Moray and combines the fish with potatoes in a creamy broth.
Haddock is just one of the many fishes traditionally smoked in Britain, alongside salmon, trout, kippers and cod’s roe. A key difference is that some, like Arbroath smokies, are hot smoked, which means the process cooks the fish as well as smoking it. Cold smoking does not cook the fish and is applied to fish like Salmon, which is served raw, as well as herring or cod, which are then poached.
With different techniques, various fish species and a number of recipes and applications, smoked fish remains a rich and popular culinary tradition. It’s not just something people have enjoyed since time immemorial; it is also a way to consume fish we can safely say people will still be enjoying far into the future.