A pair of Arbroath Smokies tied at the tails
High above the shingle beach and tiny dilapidated harbour on the rocky clifftops of the Angus coast north of Arbroath lies the village of Auchmithie the original home of what was once known as the Auchmithie smokie. Settled by fisherfolk of old Norse decent these villagers drew on a long history of fish smoking and were renowned for having perfected the art of hot smoking haddock. When the men had hauled in their fresh catch of haddock caught on bailed lines, the women of the village would ready their smoking barrels, old whisky barrels half buried in the ground and covered in layers of hessian sacking to trap just the right amount of hot fragrant smoke with an instinctive sense born of long practice. The haddock, cleaned and with the head removed, were salted and then dried a little to harden the skin. Tied by the tails with string, the fish were hung in pairs over a wooden kiln stick resting above the open whisky barrel. With the fire lit the layers of hessian sacking could be adjusted to allow the fire to breathe and maintain the required heat. In less than an hour, the hot oak and birch smoked transformed the pale flesh to a creamy white and the skin a copper brown with a delicate smoky flavour.
In her book The Scots Kitchen, Marian McNeill, recounts a quote from a local of an earlier time when the haddock were smoked in the home chimneys of the village.
‘With the setting of the sun,’ writes a native, ‘the boats come home and in the back-house the lamps are lit. Up the brae come the creeps of fish, and soon every woman and child is gutting, cleaning and salting. Little sticks of wood are stuck into the haddock gills, and two by two, tied tail to tail, they are hung on little wooden spits high up in the old fashioned lums (chimneys)… curing in the smoke of the fire, then they are taken down, gey black and sooty – but once remove the skins and what a delicious sight you see! Crisp, golden outer flesh paling into pure whiteness near the bone.’
As demand increased the whisky barrels were employed to increase the amount of fish that could be smoked and the women of the village, known as ‘luckies’, went around the countryside with their creels of smoked haddock strapped to their shoulders. In the nineteenth century, a number of the community of Auchmithie moved down the coast to settle in the larger town of Arbroath to take advantage of the larger harbour. There they continued to practice their traditional smoking craft. By the end of that century the industry in Arbroath had developed to a degree that Auchmithie gave way to Arbroath as the smokie has henceforth been known. Some smokers remained in Auchmithie as remembered by Catherine Brown from her childhood days in her book Scottish Cookery.
“I can remember seeing rows of blackened barrels dotted along the cliff top edge of the village of Auchmithie in the 1950s when I was taken there as a child. The lovely wood smoke mingled with the cooking haddock as it wafted along the cliff tops and gave Auchmithie an exotic fascination for me. The haddock, which were hung up inside the barrels, had a dark, tarry appearance, a powerful aroma of smoke and a very strong favour. When we took them home, they were eaten for tea heated in the oven, and served with lots of melted butter.”
– Catherine Brown
Today in Arbroath, now famous for its smoked fish, the traditional smoking of haddock in the old ways remains a thriving industry with a number of small producers still clustered around the harbour area. Others like Iain Spink, the fifth generation of his family in the business and with a name having old Norse origins, have made it a larger business though still smoking using traditional methods. Known nationally for the quality of its fish the company has held for a number of years now a Royal Warrant to supply Arbroath Smokies to the Queen. The future prospects of the Arbroath Smokie have been improved with the granting of a coveted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the European Union, meaning that only fish smoked in the traditional manner around Arbroath can carry the name.
I am grateful that such an interesting local food with a long history is so easily available in the fishmongers so close to my home. Even though I am not a local it provides some sense of connection to the old Scots fisherfolk of the past smoking their haddock in their cottage chimneys high on the cliffs above the North Sea.
As the Arbroath smokie is already cooked the fish only requires heating up before eating or can equally well be eaten cold. The fish for my dinner this evening was prepared in a very simple way by wrapping the fish in foil with some butter and ground black pepper and then placing the fish in a hot oven for about 20-25 minutes until heated through.
Once removed from the oven the fish can be opened up and most of the larger bones carefully removed in one go from the middle of the fish. I accompanied my smokie with mashed potato and a mix of onion, leek, and kale cooked down with some butter and more black pepper. I was also sure to include an extra helping of good melted Scottish butter on the fish in accordance with Catherine Brown’s childhood memories.
An Arbroath Smokie with mashed potato and mixed vegetables.