The seaport of Grimsby, along the Lincolnshire coast of England, was once a very attended fishing port, and in the 1930s, there were nearly 80 smokehouses in the town. Inside, a jubilation a artisans hand-filleted and cold-smoked fresh cod and haddock in tall brick chimneys over smoldering sawdust. The finished product, smoky and salty to perfection, enriched delicious fishcakes and kedgerees across the nation.
Back then Grimsby was the world’s busiest fishing port and its traditionally smoked fish was a source of local pride and countrywide enjoyment. Once caught, the fish were filleted by hand and then smoked turning cream to beige in colour, with a dry texture and a smoked slightly salty flavour. The complex process involved in the smoking was what gave the fish its distinctive taste. First the fillets were brined in a salt water solution and then drained on spreats which were long rods made of stainless steel. At the end of the day, the spreats were placed in the smokehouse chimneys, which could stretch up to 10m in height.
However, the 1940s saw the invention of electric kilns, complete with electric fans and heaters. So smoking time decreased, prices dropped, and quantities surged. Traditional producers that relied on the slow, overnight process of cold-smoking couldn’t no longer compete in price or quantity. Whereas traditional fish smoking is a natural slow overnight process, modern kiln smoking is artificially speeded up using electrically powered fans and heaters. Most smoking is done in modern kilns mainly because of its speed and versatility but this gives the fish less chance to be imbued with flavour.
In addition, the fish market took another hit when the Cod Wars, or Þorskastríðin (“the cod strife,” in Icelandic) began between England and Iceland. A series of four confrontations occurred between 1958 and 1976 and the wars resulted in England’s loss of access to fish-rich waters around the Nordic island nation. As a result, for many British trawlers, the damage was irreparable.
Today, only five traditional smokehouses remain stationed on the Grimsby Fish Docks, part of the Grimsby Traditional Fish Smokers (GTFS), an union of long-standing local businesses banded together to preserve the superior taste and quality of traditionally-smoked fish, practiced for over 150 years. They brine fillets (primarily haddock, after the Cod Wars), hang the fish on stainless steel rods, and smoke it overnight, just as their ancestors did. The tarry, historic chimneys, which ensure cold-smoking and prevent flaking by allowing air in, waft more than a century’s worth of smoke. Experienced smokers use touch to determine when the fish is ready.
After ten years of advocating, the GTFS group was awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the European Union for Traditional Grimsby Smoked Fish in 2009. The special status means it is illegal to imitate the smoked fish throughout the European Union and brings the number of UK products protected by EU law to 39.
Skill required for the smoking process is something that is passed down through the generations, and cannot simply be learnt overnight. An experienced fish smoker can tell when the fillets are ready simply by touch.
So, traditional fish smoking is a highly specialised process and Grimsby is probably the only place with the right concentration of skills, established contacts and infrastructure in which you can taste it!
Images from web.