Smoking has a long and great history on this Fair Isle. Originally used to preserve fresh food with its mixture of bacteria-killing smoke and salt people soon picked up on the great flavour that hanging food over smouldering wood chips provides. A smoked bacon sandwich must be one of life's greatest pleasures, alongside smoked salmon and bagels, and smoked baby back ribs.
Sadly 'proper' smoking has fallen out of fashion, to be replaced by giant electric kilns that can regulate temperature and are cheaper and safer to run but miss the poetry and elegance (and flavour) of something that's been smoked with nothing but wood and love.
One place where the smoking tradition has endured is Suffolk, a land of isolated communities and remote shores, where plumes of smoke can still be seen rising up against big skies that seem to stretch forever from the flat land. Once they would have existed to smoke the local sardine and kipper catch, but now the county is home to houses that smoke everything from sausages to Stilton, to salmon.
The Anchor Fisheries in Lowestoft are a traditional smokehouse, around since 1878, who are happy to show visitors around; after getting in touch with them via email and Twitter, Gemma, their front of house, suggested coming on a Monday morning when dad John would be happy to give us a tour before they lit the fires at lunchtime.
When we got there the kippers (from Norway, as the local catch isn't up to size at this time of year) had just been gutted and were being brined in salt water – originally enough salt to ‘float a potato’ although H&S have now insisted on salinometer – while next door a barrel of bloaters (kippers with their guts left in) were being dunked for slightly longer so the salt could fully penetrate the flesh.
Nearby a trough of wild sea bass, landed that morning, were being snapped by Gemma for their Facebook feed. While it may seem that this cut off bit of Britain’s coast would also have missed out on the internet revolution, the power of social networking was soon seen in full force when an elderly gentleman appeared at the door to buy ‘some of the wild sea bass I’ve just seen on your web page’. Fabulous stuff.
The best part was getting to glimpse inside the smoke houses; the first thing that strikes you is the rich glossy patina of smoke, as dark as pitch, that clings thickly to the walls. The next is the size; although they look little bigger that a cupboard from the outside, inside is like a fishy Narnia, with racks and hooks for the fish stacked on top of each other high into the chimney, with a few faint flashes of sky that can be seen if you crane your neck.
The first is for cold smoking and was filled with racks of haddock, salmon, cod’s roe and a row of red herrings. The red herrings being a strong smelling smoked fish (and hence why a red herring throws you off the scent) that is seldom now days seen and that are hung for several weeks until the flavour is more meat than fish.
As we stood there chatting with John and Gemma, Malcolm was busy expertly hooking the split kippers and whole bloaters on to strips of wood, which were then hung up in the smokehouse too. After making four small heaps of oak shaving on the floor, Malcolm lit each pile with paper spills and waited until the flames were smouldering away nicely. Then the doors were shut closed, the extractor put on and the smoke left to do its work. John told us that he’d be back at 3 in the morning to check on the progress. Now that’s dedication.
The second smokehouse is for hot smoking salmon, this is done with oak logs that come from a local sawmill and are kept, along with an axe, in the cupboard next door. These hot smoked salmon fillets take mere hours to smoke, compared to potentially days for the cold smoked goods, but the heat and ferocity of the fire means the smokehouse cannot be left unattended while the fish is hot smoking.
Gemma advertises each of their tours comes with a sample of hot smoked salmon, but at Anchor they don’t mean a few flakes to try while you're there. No, here a sample means a whole piece of hot smoked salmon fillet for each person, packaged up to take home. We also bought a pint of their smoked prawns, which were enjoyed over lunch with some crusty bread; and some kippers for my Mum, who proclaimed them the best she'd ever tried; and she does love a kipper on a Sunday morning.
Rarely have I enjoyed a morning as much as I did at the Anchor; it really is a gem, and not in a sanitised, preserved for posterity fashion. This place is all about frozen toes in the small hours of the morning, steaming cuppas, camaraderie, fish guts in a barrel, and the gentle perfume of wood smoke. The perfect mixture of traditional methods and new technology.
The people, too, are what make it so special; John and Gemma are affable and enthusiastic hosts, while Malcolm, a man of few words, is a master craftsman of many years’ experience. Watching him take a filleting knife to a wild sea bass was truly a pleasure.
While the Anchor Smokehouse is all spit and sawdust, Pinney’s of Orford is rather more refined. As well as the smoked fish and seafood sold from their shop down at Orford Quay (as well as Harrods and the Tate Modern) they also own the Butley Orford Oysterage in Orford, destination for a sunny springtime lunch.
The Oysterage, as the name suggests, is known for the oysters that were first cultivated by founder Richard Pinney after the Second World War on old beds in nearby Butley creek. They also serve their own smoked products as well as a selection of seasonal fresh fish dishes and homemade puds.
The décor is part old English tea room, part Mediterranean tavern; with cosy brown wood and potted plants butting up next to the weighty marble tables adorned with paper tablecloths decorated with their Poseidon-esque logo. The place was full of couples enjoying a drink and spot of lunch and I rather felt as if I were in an Orwell novel - a very agreeable 30’s time warp where you can still get a crab salad and a slice of cake, washed down with a glass of local beer.
Something Orwell wouldn’t have been able to find on the shores is English wine (not the sort from grapes, anyway) but here the Oysterage offers Staverton white, from nearby Woodbridge, the Ewing’s choice to accompany her plate of oysters.
She also ordered what felt the world's largest slab of cod's roe (too true - TE). While that may be a slight exaggeration it was very big, very salty and very nice. There was also plenty of toast to slather it over, which always wins brownie points.
I splashed out with a glass of the buttery white burgundy to go with my plate assorted smoked hors d'oeuvres - almost unknown on menus any more, at least by name; now it’s all tapas and ‘nibbles’ and ‘sharers’.
It was a top choice, showcasing little morsels of trout, salmon, prawns, cod’s roe, smoked fish pate and eel alongside two oysters that quickly made their way onto the Ewing’s plate. The smoke levels at Pinney’s are gentle, rather than the full-throated oak from the Anchor, which made for a nice change of pace. The eel, pate and salmon were particularly good, the former served with a smashing (onion?) compote that was almost gel like in consistency.
Keeping up with the retro theme, salad leaves were undressed (vinaigrette would have sufficed; mayo would have been good; salad cream better) and local trencher bread came in a solitary slice with foil wrapped pats of French butter; all marvellously old-fashioned and endearing.
I was flagging at the pudding stage, but the Ewing had her eye on the two specials chalked on the board behind her – the other wall features those brilliant identify the species posters you used to see hanging in fishmongers.
The first was a chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream, the second a superlative almond and apple tart with a scoop of vanilla. These were proper nursery puds; warm and sticky and comforting and quite divine; almost the show stealer and certainly worth saving some room for.
Directly behind the Oysterage, hidden down a little footpath that backs onto the town allotments, you can find Richardson’s Smokehouse. The main clue that this little gem exists are the plumes of smoke that curl up above the rooftops. Investigating a little further brings you to a sandwich board, displaying the day’s wares, and a trail of oak chippings that lead you to the open shop front.
Inside we are greeted by Roni Buckley, the smokehouse's co-founder – who, after I ordered half a dozen of their plump smoked chorizo, points to the Observer article that’s proudly tacked to the wall and suggests we try the accompanying recipe of pasta with the sausage, mushrooms, courgettes and cream.
Up to our gills already with fish (pardon the pun) we debate over a glorious looking sugar glazed and blackened hock, unsure if it will make it back home after our travels; any doubt is assuaged when a warm joint is fetched, fresh from the smoker, with a shelf life of ten days, which is loosely wrapped for us. Later, when we’re back home again, it makers a superlative sandwich along with a little dab of Colman’s (it doesn't last past the weekend).
Like the Anchor this place feels lived in and well loved, from the axe leaning up against the smokery wall to the friendly chat inside. They are also rare in smoking a range of both fish and meat, from tiny little whole pigeons to chickens, duck, mackerel, kippers and bacon. They also smoke garlic and cheese; the cheddar we bought had the most magnificent orange ring of oak smoke and made an inspired addition to a cauliflower cheese.
Feeling the need to expend some of the many calories we had consumed, a walk down past the allotments and the early daffodils to the quayside which lead us straight past the Pinney’s shop, where we called in for a bottle of local apple juice and a pot of their buttery fish pate to enjoy with our Pump Street bread (found opposite the the Oysterage). Here you can also find a large range of smoked and fresh fish and deli goods as well as pottery and tableware, which is how we came to somehow acquire some coasters with mackerel painted on them.
If you make it down to the quay then don’t stop at the shop; this is where the Suffolk Coastal Path starts and there’s some lovely walks that take you to Woodbridge or Orford Ness - ferries will take you across in the summer season - or just enjoy the walk around the harbour before stopping to enjoy the view back across to Orford Castle.
Our trip back up the coast from Orford saw us call in at Emmetts of Peasenhall, another purveyor famed for their smoked goods,and our third of the day. Far from flagging, I was very excited to get my hands on some proper Suffolk black bacon and ham.
Pork has been cured and smoked here since 1820, although you can now also find many other goodies with their large range of Spanish and Italian deli items including oil, cheese, wine, chocolate and dried fruit; alongside with local apple juice and cakes that are also served in their adjoining cafe.
The bacon was the real draw for me - cured in black porter beer, molasses and natural brown sugar, the sides are then hot smoked for 2-3 days. As well as back (picked up for Saturday morning sarnies) and streaky you can also get ribs, pancetta, lardons, collar joints and off cuts (picked up for pasta, soups and salads). They even sell devils on horseback - rashers of streaky bacon that are wrapped around plump prunes and ready to grill.
The bacon isn't cheap, but with prime meat and slow production methods it's still great value. I can attest however to its deliciousness; this is serious bacon and makes a serious sandwich. Thumbs up too for the Bramley apple juice and fabulous Spanish Pajarero dried figs, a present for the sweet-toothed Stealth, and very well received.
Our final smokery stop was on a walk back across Aldeburgh's shingle, which also happened to be the last day of our trip. Needing something to go with the bottle of fizz we had bought for a belated anniversary celebration, we called in on the Aldeburgh Smokehouse, the last in a long line of fish shops that run along the back of the beach.
I fancied something a bit fancy, but sadly they were out of their speciality 'crusted' salmon - fillets of fish that have been marinated in a layer of herbs and spices before smoking and slicing. They did have some magnificent looking giant prawns, though as well as some mackerel whose flesh was gleaming with the sheen of oak smoke.
I got my salmon fix in the form of a packet of Pinney's, from the wonderful Lawson's Deli on the High Street, where we also picked up a box of Suffolk Honey Caramels and a wedge of oozing Baron Bigood cheese. The perfect feast (alongside a dose of Poirot on ITV3), to end a perfect holiday.