It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell down in torrents, and my friend Lisa and I were cocooned in the kitchen of the award-winning fish smoker, Sally Barnes, making our way through kilos of smoked haddock with a squeeze of lime and a scratch of black pepper.
Sally is the proprietor of the Woodcock smokery, and is a certified fish celebrity. Her smoked salmon is praised by AA Gill. Richard Corrigan orders it for his Michelin starred restaurants. Neal’s Yard cheesemongers sell it, even though they should really be selling cheese. Terence Conran ordered it for a really, really big birthday party. Sally has won countless awards for her work, and was kind enough to have me over for a look around and an interview… which expanded into tea, dinner, drinks, breakfast, and a hill walk. She’s just that kind of person.
For us at Ballymaloe, the Woodcock smokery is the quintessence of Irish artisan food. How did it all begin? Well, years ago, I was absolutely furious with my husband, Colin (a commercial fisherman), because he brought home the most enormous brown trout – I had to do something to save such a beautiful thing from spoiling (we didn’t have a freezer) and so I started experimenting with smoking with a wire rack in a biscuit tin. I see smoking as just twiddling and tweaking to delay the natural breakdown and inevitable recycle of matter back into nature.
We started to gain momentum, and in 2006, I entered my salmon into the Great Taste Awards. They asked me to come to London for the ceremony, but it was too far. They kept calling back, so eventually I gave in. When they announced that I had won the Best Fresh Product, Best Irish Speciality and the Fortnum & Mason Supreme Champion Trophy, I was speechless… and a bit pissed… I had to garble a speech in front of the whole ballroom – I dedicated it to Ireland.
How do you smoke the fish? We start in the ‘dirty’ room – this is where we fillet and salt the raw fish – a bit of a misnomer, we keep it impeccably clean. The salt is washed off and into the smoker it goes – the length of time alters depending on the weather. For cold smoked fish, the temperature cannot exceed 30⁰C, else it’ll start to cook. We use local hardwood shavings, such as ash, beech, oak, apple wood if we can get it. The secret to good smoked salmon is to draw out a lot of the moisture from the fish before smoking it, so it’s firm and keeps longer.
(Above – Sally showing me her smoked salmon, right – the smoker)
Does it make a difference where your fish comes from? Smoking is a preserving method: if the raw materials you start with aren’t any good, then smoking it won’t help you. For fish such as haddock, I usually buy from day fishing boats coming into Baltimore (just down the road), which I know are fresh and are fished by responsible fishermen who will return young fish to the sea, to replenish stocks. For smoked salmon, I will only smoke wild, sea caught fish which are sourced sustainably – which, to be honest, is a pain. In 2007, just as I was getting going, a total ban was introduced on fishing salmon at sea in Ireland, so I now source my salmon from Scotland, where the fish are caught in ‘stake’ nets along the shore. The nets lie flat on the beach when the tide goes out, leaving the fish free to travel to their rivers without getting caught – they catch fish only when the tide is high. Bit more ‘sporting’ on behalf of the fish.
(Sally’s wonderfully ramshackle kitchen, stuffed full of books and nic-nacks).
What about organic farmed salmon? I think ‘organic’ is misleading when applied to farmed salmon. Salmon are mad, they are hell bent on swimming up and down rivers, out into the ocean to feed before returning to spawn and start the cycle over again. They are fussy about what they eat. But they can’t swim or eat as they want in sea farms. The term ‘organic’ leads customers to think that the farming process is authentic, that it is ethical. You can taste the difference in the quality of the fish.
How did you learn how to smoke so well? It’s practice and dedication. I’ve done two Open University courses: Food Production Systems and Oceanography – it was like my brain was flopped on the table and having a nice massage. It made me really realise how all living things derive energy from sunlight, and are linked together passing this energy around the food chain – and humans are threatening this delicate balance. I knew how to smoke, but these courses taught me what was going really on, on a microbiological level.
You’ve travelled the world sharing your knowledge of smoking. Where is the most interesting place your work has taken you? I love the Middle East. They have fantastic fish, but no history of smoking in their cuisine. I did a demonstration at a centre for the empowerment of women in Tripoli, which was a tough sell… the women were polite, but when I started up the fire to hot-smoke locally-caught fish, they hid their horror by turning away and busying themselves with preparing sweet cakes… they adore fresh fish, and had no interest in preserving it. When they tried some, it was all gone in minutes – I didn’t even get a taste. They made me show them all over again, and payed attention. That was pretty special.
What is your favourite way to eat your smoked fish? That’s hard… probably smoked salmon with a few dots of honey and black pepper… and smoked haddock with a squeeze of lime and black pepper. (See the recipes here.)
What would be in your desert island picnic basket? Bread – I’d be mortified if I developed a gluten intolerance Conserved artichokes Roquefort An enormous side of my own smoked salmon A case of wine (note to reader, I disqualified an entire wine cellar) … and the novel Love in the time of cholera – if this basket can only have food, I can eat it for you.
I found this photo on Sally’s wall of the inauguration of the Slowfood West Cork Convivium, at Gubbeen farm in Schull – a line-up of some of the most influential people in Irish food… fitting, really. From left to right: Annie Barry (‘Annie’s’ Restaurant, Ballydehob), the lovely Sally Barnes, Bill Hogan (who made world famous swiss-style cheeses Gabriel and Desmond, and is now a poet), Giana Ferguson (wildly successful Gubbeen cheese), Myrtle Allen (founder of Ballymaloe House restaurant and responsible for whole Allen culinary dynasty), Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald (former Taioseach/ Prime Minister), and Darina Allen on the right.
Photo by John Minihan. He took many shots of Samuel Beckett, in Paris.
What I learned this week: The grey flesh under the skin of mackerel is packed full of omega 3, so don’t scrape it off! Also, if you want to make the best food, you need to start with the best ingredients.
Sally, me and Lisa. #smoking