As proprietor of Alfred Enderby, the traditionally smoked fish business he acquired in 2016, the appositely named Patrick Salmon’s working day starts at Grimsby fish market long before dawn. ‘I’m after the best fresh haddock money can buy,’ he affirms, jabbing his fingers like a stingray in the gloaming. ‘That means pink gills, bright eyes and firm flesh along the spine. For some merchants, smoking is the last resort for wet fish they don’t sell, but not for Alfred Enderby.’
There are few markets offering greater catches of haddock than Grimsby, yet the availability of a truly wild and sustainable quarry from cold Icelandic waters depends on recent weather at sea. Given favourable conditions, 20 or so 50kg (110lb) boxes or kits of fish will be bought and transported the short distance to the 100-year-old brick- built smokehouse at the docks that’s the
nerve centre of Mr salmon’s business.
It was ever thus, as artisan family businesses in a town that could once claim to be the biggest fishing port in the world have been refining the art of smoking a perfect fresh haddock for generations. They’re helped by the cool, dry winds blowing in off the Humber Estuary that provide ideal conditions for the long cold-smoking process that has earned traditionally smoked Grimsby fish the only Protected Geographical Indication status in Lincolnshire.
In order to retain the coveted accolade, which recognises a unique combination of provenance and quality, fish must be cold-smoked for a minimum of eight hours. The end product glows with an opaque, pale sheen, although a few old-timers still prefer their fillets dyed yellow, as was prevalent before the second World War.
Superb in a fish pie, smoked haddock is also the essential ingredient of kedgeree and cullen skink, the celebrated Scottish dish that was a favourite starter for the Queen Mother. Elsewhere in north-east Scotland, the smaller fishing villages of Findon and Arbroath have spawned their own unique smoked haddock dishes of Finnan haddie and the Arbroath smokie.
Back in Grimsby, Alfred Enderby’s small, expert team sets to the daily task of fillet- ing up to 500 haddocks weighing a couple of pounds each; according to Mr salmon, there are more skilled filleters working in the town than anywhere else on Earth.
After fillets have been deftly sliced from each fish, they’re immersed in a brine mix carefully prepared by master smoker Dave Berry, who comes from a family steeped in fishing history and has been with the company for more than 40 years. Mr Berry won’t divulge the exact mix of salt and water in the tanks, but, after 15 minutes, the fish are removed, impaled on metal spikes known as speats and hung on ‘horses’ to drip dry. Together with ‘hanging the houses’, which refers to the laborious task of suspending fillets high up inside six brick chimneys, the terminology is as familiar to those inside the smokehouse as it’s peculiar to the layman outside.
Sawdust on the solid floor of chimneys — coated black with the residue of a century’s continuous smoking—is lit at the end of the day and allowed to smoulder gently over- night for at least 12 hours before the strike, when the fillets are removed.
‘Our art is to infuse a delicate flavour of smoke into the fish,’ Mr salmon eulogises, his words rolling off his tongue like smoke licking the sides of his kilns. ‘By leaving it for so long, we get a dry, glossy finish to the flesh and a beautiful depth of flavour that can never be replicated in electronic ovens.’
It seems that those in the know agree with him; clients and devotees include Marco Pierre White, Rick stein, the Caprice group and a growing band of discerning individuals, such as the actress Elizabeth Hurley.
As if the verdicts of famous chefs and celebrities were not enough, Alfred Enderby’s smoked haddock and salmon were recent recipients of two and three stars respectively in the coveted Great Taste food awards. Dubbed the food Oscars, the event saw more than 12,600 products appraised in 2018. ‘All the judges have to agree it’s sublime,’ Mr salmon enthuses. ‘If you get one star, it’s brilliant, two’s insane, three stars is exquisite — bonkers, just bonkers. I don’t think haddock has ever got a look in before, never mind two stars.’ He lowers his voice: ‘To be honest, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit disappointed about the haddock,’ he confides, ‘because it’s truly beautiful, I know it’s the best.’
Country Life, April 3, 2019