Food and farming feature: Historic smokehouse keeps herring tradition alive
PUBLISHED: 06:00 27 April 2013
a Lowestoft side street full of terraced houses seems a peculiar place to find a traditional smoker of fish.
But this is no ordinary smokehouse – it is the oldest smokehouse in Great Britain.
The first indication that I am close to The Old Smokehouse is the wonderful aroma of cooked herring wafting down Raglan Street and pulling me to the entrance of this truly authentic Suffolk business.
Scribbled chalk boards, oak beams and a cobbled passage, it’s like a scene from a period drama. But the real truth is that it is one of a small number of local businesses that hark back to a day when Lowestoft was the envy of many fishing ports around the country.
Fish and smoke have been a major part of William Buckenham’s life since he was a boy. He took over the family business 15 years ago but has been involved in the smoking of fish for years, helping his parents, and he recalls running round the smokehouse where his father used to work.
“Dad loved the business. He took this smokehouse on some 40 years ago, after working for a rival smoker for 25 years. It was a big commitment for him, but once here he never looked back.”
During its heyday, Lowestoft was home to no less than 280 smokehouses.
The decline of the fishing industry brought changes in culture, including an influx of fast food outlets and now just three smokehouses remain.
As I linger in the door of the smokehouse, taking in the aroma and ambience, an elderly customer is buying two smoked kippers.
He takes great pleasure in pointing out the details of a photograph on the wall giving a glimpse of days gone by.
“That, boy, is how it always used to be. Lowestoft was alive, you could go down the docks and walk across the harbour stepping from boat to boat.”
The scene is completely different now, of course, but thankfully craftsmen like William continue to keep the town’s heritage alive.
The methods used in The Old Smokehouse have changed little since William’s father took charge of the business, or indeed since the fishermen of Lowestoft first began salting and smoking fish as a way of preserving them.
“Our process is the same as it would have been hundreds of years ago,” says William.
“It’s all about the salt and wood.”
I am led through the shop to the smokehouse, which has been here since 1760.
The timber lining the dark chamber has not been changed in all those years and is wonderfully preserved by the smoke and oil from the fish.
It is surprisingly large inside, about 35 ft high, and was once full to the brim with smoked fish during what used to be called the home fishing season, when the town would be overrun with herring girls, fishermen and copious amounts of fish.
At first the process looks easy, but I soon realise that this is a craft of the highest order. Let the fire get too hot or give the fish too much salt and the product is ruined, a costly mistake to make.
“It takes years of experience to know how to smoke fish to a high standard,” says William.
“You want just the right amount of oak shavings to start the fires and create the smoke, you want to smoke the fish and give the flavour without it being overpowering or too salty.
“It’s all about timing and knowing the characteristics of the fish you are working with.”
Before smoking, the fish have to be gutted and prepared. In days gone by there would be rows of herring girls on the dockside, gutting fish at an astonishing rate.
These days the quantity is much smaller, though the techniques remain the same. I am amazed to see how quickly a box of local herring can be prepared. William is particular about the way the fish are cut.
Many industrial and large scale producers cut all the way through the fish, packing the kipper flat to improve storage and weight.
In keeping with the heritage and family traditions, the smokehouse leaves a rounded head to the kippers, which is far more aesthetically pleasing.
“It was the way my mother and father taught me and I have stayed true to the tradition. Fish should look beautiful when prepared authentically,” says William.
The next stage for the herring is to be preserved in salt. When done properly, the salt preserves the fish to such an extent that once smoked it will last up to year. Fish being prepared as the strongly-coloured red herring will be in salt for up to three days and will be turned daily, known as rousing.
As I look at the local herring which came in to port this morning, William explains the variations of smoked fish that will be prepared from this 25kg box that sits before me.
“Kippers are dipped in a salt brine for 15 minutes, then smoked for a short period of time, while bloaters are roused in salt and then smoked over night.
“Red herrings take time – the fish is roused, put on to spits and then left in the smokehouse for up to 10 weeks, turned occasionally to even out the flavour and take on a dramatic golden red glow when ready.
I follow the bloaters as they are taken into the smokehouse, where I am staggered to see 190kg of red herring hanging from the spits.
The scene is incredible, rows upon rows of golden and red glowing fish and a sweet smoky smell in the air.
I watch William climb the ladder to hang the new spits of fish – this is a hard living.
“You have to handle the fish so many times before you make any money.
“I guess I am fortunate because I produce a variety of smoked and fresh fish which caters to all my customers’ needs.”
As if to illustrate this point perfectly, two customers come in and purchase completely different products, one opting for fresh fish and crabs, the other for smoked salmon.
I cast my eye over the old photographs and relics, mementos of William’s family and Lowestoft’s past.
Ironically I do not eat fish even though I am from this area.
Maybe it is the smoke, the nostalgia or the rich enticing smell, but I feel myself tempted to try some.
“I could eat fish every day,” says William.
“Give me a bloater or kipper on a slab of crusty bread with some butter – you can’t beat it.”
I leave William to tend to his smoked fish while I join one of his regular customers in purchasing some. Bloaters in hand the customer begins to leave, turning back with a glint in his eye.
“I come here every week for my fish, have done for years. You won’t taste better.”
n This article first appeared in EADT Suffolk magazine