Up in Smoke

You never know who calls! A ‘customer’ visiting Jim Moate’s ‘Smokery’ asked if he could write an article about him. The result and completely unexpected, was a 3 page effort complete with half a dozen photographs in the NFU Countryside Magazine (0870 840 2030 – www.nfucountryside.org.uk). The magazine is of very high quality and full of interesting articles. It is available by subscription for just £39.50 per annum)
 
The article on Jim and the Smokery is reproduced here in its entirety:-
 
UP IN SMOKE
 
Curing fish is a dying art but on the Kent Coast, one man continues this age-old craft.
 
Black tarmac snakes its way round rusted anchors, old boats trailers and crab pots. This is the road across Dungeness, a shingle beach on the Kent coast in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Stark in their beauty, ramshackle fishing huts nestle defiantly on million of pebbles, daring the sea to wash them away.
 
There has been a ‘smoke hole’ or ‘herring hang’ at Dungeness for hundreds of years, ever since the fishermen who lived there started preserving their catches for their families. Now, most of the fishermen have gone, replaced by weekenders and art galleries selling photographs and watercolour paintings to tourists. But there is one smokery left.
 

Former fishermen Jim Moate has lived at Dungeness all of his life. ‘The community has changed a lot during my lifetime’ he admits. ‘It used to be nothing but fishermen living here. Every house was a fisherman’s cottage and all the people who lived in them were closely involved in the industry. Now there are very few left’. Like countless others who once made their living from the sea, Jim has been forced out of the traditional lively hood. ‘I had a back injury and was told not to go back to sea again. The Doctor said if I did my back in a second time it would be forever. I did go out fishing but I had to be really careful. If you don’t go full pelt you just can’t earn a living, so I gave up’.

 

Instead Jim started experimenting with smoking fish. He learned his art from talking to the old men on the beach and from recipes found a ‘Pearl Cottage’, the 270-year-old house where he lives. ‘I asked and the old boys were all quite friendly about it. They gave me their recipes – some good and some not so good- and told me what they did. I took the best recipes, had a few practice runs and gradually started to make a living from it.’

 
Smoking, or curing is a centuries old way of preserving food. It’s a two stage process involving salting the fish before they are smoked. Jim uses only top quality fresh fish, which are placed in a salt water brine, then placed on racks or hung up to smoke over a low, sweet smelling, smouldering fire. He uses oak sawdust, which gives a distinctive flavour and natural colour without any dips, dyes, preservatives or chemicals.
 
The brine cures the fish by driving out the water and replacing it with a saline solution. This is essential because the amount of water left in the fish determines how long it can be kept. If there is too much it will go off quickly. The smoke, which has an antiseptic property, glazes the salted fish, sealing it like a natural polythene wrapper, keeping in all the goodness and preserving the meat.
 
‘I could cure a fish so you could bury it with a Pharaoh and it would never go bad,’ says Jim. ‘It would be as hard a stick of wood and you’d have to soak it for a couple of days to get rid of the salt. Years ago people used a lot more salt but customers don’t want so much these days, so I only cure fish to last a couple of weeks.’
 
Many factors are essential for successful smoking: the strength of the brine, the condition of the sawdust, the type of fish and the length of time for which it is to be smoked. The height at which the fish hangs in the smokery can also determine the flavour. Even the weather plays a crucial part in how the final product tastes – or indeed, whether it is edible at all.
 
In humid weather, fish does not dry properly after it is salted. It stays damp and doesn’t smoke very well. ‘Stormy weather is a nightmare,’ says Jim ‘any storm will make the fish turn funny. Storms can turn milk off and they can upset fish as well. It’s only happened to me once and I had to throw the fish away. Now, in heavy stormy weather, I don’t smoke at all. Its just too risky.’
 
Different fish require different salting methods. Oily fish must be brined for a longer period and they take more time to absorb the smoke. The types of wood affect the flavour too but Jim sticks to oak as it gives a consistent result. The taste is subtle and sweet rather than overpowering and the fish flakes easily once cooked. ‘In the old days everyone around here had a smoke house because they used to do a lot of bloaters,’ says Jim. People didn’t have fridges so they cured the fish to preserve it. Now it’s an art only found in cookery books. They often say salt everything for an hour and a half in different strengths of brine. But it is far easier to have one strength and vary the length of time.’
 
The fish comes mainly from the Kent coast, although freshwater trout and salmon are brought in from farther a field. Depending on the type of fish Jim uses one of two methods. – Hot smoking or cold smoking. Cold smoking cures raw fish at a low temperature in a specially built wooden shed. Whit fish, such as haddock take 18 to 24 hours; kippers take about three days and salmon about five days.
 
Jim cold smokes over night when the temperature is lower. But hot smoking, for which he uses a metal kiln, cooks fish as it is smoked. It is a shorter process and fish such as mackerel takes as little as 3 to 6 hours. It involves heating a flash plate containing the oak dust that sits at the bottom of the kiln. ‘I don’t take it too hot because that spoils the fish’ says Jim. I prefer a slower smoke. If it’s too hot the smoke can be so dense the fish will turn black and spoil in ten minutes. I have learned through more than 30 years experience. These days I can look at the smoke and feel the heat to know I have got it exactly right.’
 
Customers comprise a mix of local residents and passing tourists and Jim’s happy with that. In fact he refuses to sell to restaurants, nor will he set up a mail order business. He is proud to use time-honoured methods to produce a local speciality. Even the masses of modern food regulations that have put many small food producers out of business have left him undaunted. ‘I used to smoke meat as well as fish’ he explains ‘but the rules became to stifling. You have to use separate refrigeration, counters and knives. That was just ridiculous; everyone knows you wouldn’t put smoked bacon in with fresh smoked haddock. It became too difficult and wasn’t worthwhile. Now I stick to what I do best – smoking fish!’
 
Jim Moate, The Smokery, Dungeness. TN29 9NE. Telephone 01797 320 604.
 
Open Tuesday to Sunday throughout the year.
 
West Country Stoves for home smokers on 01363 773 557
 
And a paper back giving full advise on smoking methods for fish game etc. 0870 840 2030 ‘Home smoking and curing’ by Keith Erlandson.
 
Bloaters and Kippers – what are they? Both are herring. A bloater is smoked whole and a kipper is split and then smoked!

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