Fresh Magazine featured this great article by Henrietta Clancy
CUISINE of the caveman, staple of the Roman and sustenance of the Eskimo, smoked food has left a sizeable scorch markon culinary history. Before the invention of the refrigerator in the 1920s, smoking meant that meats and fish could be safely transported and enjoyed far from where they originated. Those Romans liked to travel, and - ignorant of food miles - they liked to feast luxuriously on their favourite treats regardless of their location. The smoking process would be prefaced with a salting or brining period to enhance its preservative powers, the flesh in question would then be dried out and treated to the smoke’s antimicrobial properties, resulting in a product with a dramatically increased “shelf life”.
However, as smoking has become less of a necessity and more a question of taste, so our smoking habits have changed. And somewhere along the line, smoked food has become pigeonholed; it is at once regarded as something of a luxury, usually limited to salmon and reserved for the top of blinis on New Year’s Eve, and, more commonly, a flavouring, as with bacon. Tragically, many of these smoked or smoky options have had as much contact with smoke as smoky bacon crisps have had with meat, in reality they’ve been painted with a “liquid smoke” that’s often had other flavourings added too. As any connoisseur will tell you, this shortcut grossly underestimates the complexity of genuine smoked food, whose appeal lies in its ability to unearth previously undetected flavours, not its smoky mask.
But smoking food using traditional methods can be a pricey process - not only is it time consuming, but when you smoke something it loses 25 per cent of its weight, giving you less meat for your money. Which is why, if we want genuine smoked food at affordable prices, the only sensible solution is to join the ranks of the home smokers. Of course, it would hardly be worth the effort of adopting a new hobby if it were merely to cheapen your salmon and better your bacon, but for the experimental chef the possibilities are endless. Whereas historically it was mainly perishable goods - namely meat and fish - that were smoked, nowadays there is nothing to stop you giving your cornflakes an edge orjazzing up your pick ‘n’ mix. Jo Hampson and her partner Georgina Petkins encourage precisely this type of experimentation on the courses they run in Cumbria, where you can quite feasibly pitch up for a weekend with dreams of smoking traditional cabbage varieties in a treasure chest, and find them eager to help. No previous experience of smoking food is required to join a course - in fact, when the couple upped and left their senior jobs at Thames Valley Police almost 10 years ago and bought the already established Old Smokehouse near Penrith, Jo admits that she “didn’t particularly like smoked food”. Luckily, after years spent producing commercial quantities of the stuff, her taste buds acquired a definite fondness for it, and when they relocated to a converted barn on the fells, they reverted to hobbyist smoking and began teaching “anyone and everyone” — foodies, hunters, fishers - on their motley crew of home smokers.
Salt at the very brining
Jo promises that it’s easy, cheap and fun and can be broken down into several simple steps. Anything can be thrown on to the smoker, and pretty much everything has been, most of which required either dry salting or wet brining first to bring down the moisture content and help with flavouring. As a matter of course Jo always uses dry salt for salmon and brine for meat, but the intensity of the brine and flavourings can be experimented with: spices, wine, cider - concoct your potions as you see fit. Your choice should also take whether you are hot or cold smoking into consideration. Everything must be cold smoked initially to develop the smoky flavour, and this alone is sufficient if the product can be eaten raw (smoked salmon) or if it doesn’t require cooking (cheese), both foods that would happily spend a day in the smoker, developing exciting depths of flavour. Hot smoking is when you give something access to cold smoke for about three hours, before increasing the temperature to finish the cooking. Ideally this would be in the same place, amongst smoke, but “you could take it out at this stage and pop it in your cooker.”
The smoker can be constructed from pretty much anything, from the discarded shell of a car to a hollow tree, just so long as you have the imagination and patience to make it work. Jo assures me that it’s all been done: a biscuit tin, wardrobe, old privy and a filing cabinet, the latter being a personal invention and favourite, “I light a fire in the bottom drawer and put the salmon in the top drawer!”. The most important thing is that the smoke must rise, but this doesn’t mean that the smoke chamber has to be directly below the food; it can just as easily be positioned to the side with a tunnel connecting the two. Of course if you’re willing to part with the pennies you can speed things up at this stage by buying a home smoker. There are plenty to choose from, from the basic stovetop smoker that starts at about £30 and can be popped on any heat source - stove, campfire or barbecue - to a more serious piece of stand-alone aquipment that resembles R2D2 at £300. As with any hobby, if you want to bankrupt yourself getting the gear, you can do so with ease. A smoker that looks like it’s been created from the dismantled parts of an eighteenth century steam engine is available at just under £2,500, alhough purchasing this one slightly invalidates the savings you’ll be making by smoking your own salmon. The basic model will start you off, and the fancy one will certainly make a grand statement in the garden (and allow you to regulate heat and smoke), but there are plenty in the middle that will do the job effectively.
Chips, pellets and dust
The same level of thrift can extend to your smoking fuel - “you don’t have to spend a fortune on West Country Salt and Hickory Chips,” Jo says — and there is nothing to stop you chopping up old furniture and collecting pencil sharpenings to toss on the smoker and give your food that personal touch (Kitchen Chair Smoked Duck Breast seasoned with Caran d’Ache Smoked peppercorns anyone?). Easier alternatives might be paying your local timber merchant a visit, or befriending a carpenter for his scraps.
Oak tends to be the smoking fuel of choice in the UK, but different materials are used in different areas of the world, and this isn’t necessarily limited to wood; on a recent trip to Iceland I ordered some smoked artic char, expecting something that resembled smoked salmon, with a subtle oak smokiness that complemented the velvety flavour of the fish, only to be served something quite different. The smoke emanating from my plate was so strong that it attacked my nostrils before my taste buds had even registered its presence. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it certainly wasn’t what I was used to; the arctic char had been smoked using sheep dung, imparting a strong earthy flavour that masked the true character of the fish. The use of dung is a result of the scarcity of trees in Iceland; similarly the English preference for oak is a result of its abundance here. Although a variety of smoking materials are Out there, Jo generally uses oak as it “gives a good taste and it burns at a lower rate than a lot of other woods” — something that makes cold smoking easier to regulate.
It’s also interesting to note that what we want out of a wood has changed throughout time. The Scandinavian black ham was originally smoked with a coniferous wood for the purpose of imparting a thick tarry residue, which ultimately served as a shield to keep flies out. With flies being less of a concern these days, we tend to prefer hard woods to soft, as they don’t leave a residue - something that is now believed to be carcinogenic. If we do use a hard wood it’s usually used at the end of smoking to impart a flavour, rather than overwhelm. And again, if you want to spend you can, and pre-packaged smoking wood pellets, dust and chips are readily available to buy online in flavours ranging from maple to Jack Daniels.
Light the fire
When you’ve hung or placed your food in the chamber, light your fire, lick your chops in anticipation and wait to be pleasantly surprised, as Jo insists that you never know what you’re going to get, “when you smoke a piece of food properly the smoke brings out flavours that were unnoticeable beforehand”. One of the most vital things to remember is to keep the temperature under control (you don’t want a flame!), and Jo suggests smoking a cheese with other goods to act as an indicator; if it begins to melt, reduce the heat. And when it comes to time, take the weather into consideration; a windy day is ideal because the smoker won’t get too hot, on a rainy day things will take longer because of the moisture in the air.
And Jo’s parting words of wisdom? “Remember that home smoking is not a science, it’s an art. Even if you’ve done everything according to the book, the weather may change. And have fun, there’s a theatre to smoking food so have people round for dinner and smoke their salmon starter in front of them whilst you sip Champagne.” (No, the cavemen might not have done it quite like that, but I’m sure the Romans weren’t too far off).
THE EXPERIMENTAL SMOKER
A self-professed “aspiring Heston,” Ben Norum, 21, from Chichester in West Sussex was given a smoker by his parents for Christmas last year and has hardly stopped using it since. A compact, portable smoker that relies on two meths burners placed beneath the tray, it measures just 14 x 11 x 4 inches and costs around £50. This type of smoker can be used indoors and, although his family have certainly enjoyed the culinary results of their gift, Ben admits that they have also suffered for their kindness, “There has been frequent coughing and watering of eyes as I’ve smoked indoors on wet and cold days - and the smell does tend to linger..." Ben is into his kitchen gadgetry in a big way - and also owns an espuma, ice-cream-maker and food dehydrator - but declares the smoker to be his favourite toy. This isn’t simply the result of a passion for smoked food either, but rather the endless possibilities that the process creates, “The length of smoking, temperature of smoking and, of course, medium of smoking all impacts so much on the flavour of the food that virtually any result can be achieved. I’m also yet to discover a food that can’t be smoked. Obviously some of my experiments have been less successful than others, but all have been very edible.”
Having spent the past 12 months avidly smoking away with a range of raw ingredients, cooked staples, and a variety of woods, Ben has provided a couple of tasting notes . . . His only tip being not to overdo it with the smoke, as all you’ll end up with is “an overriding smoke taste.”
Oak-Smoked Potato Wedges “Cooked as normal and then smoked for a few minutes, these are great with paprika or a barbecue sauce. Sweet potatoes also work well.”
Hickory-Infused Barbecue Sauce “Much better than anything you can buy. I make a simple tomato salsa with tinned tomatoes, onion, garlic and chilli then place it in a bowl in the hot ~ smoker for about five minutes.”
Cherry-Wood Smoked Liver “Simply hot-smoke from raw for
about 10 minutes. Any liver works well, as does
venison and pigeon.”
Jack Daniel’s Cinnamon-Smoked Bananas “Hot smoke bananas in their skins for 15 minutes with a mixture of Jack Daniel’s whisky barrel wood and cinnamon bark, and serve with ice cream as a twist on banana split. What is also nice is pureeing the bananas
and making a smoky banana ice cream. Both go well with a chocolate and/or whisky sauce.”
Pine-Smoked Chicken “I tried this after Christmas and used our old Christmas tree needles to make the smoke. The pine flavour is quite subtle so chicken lets it come through better than stronger meats. The first time I did this, I smoked the chicken from raw but by the time it was cooked it was very smoky, so would recommend partially cooking it and just smoking for about five minutes.”
Smoked Black Olives “These are great with drinks or as part of an antipasti, any smoke is
good but hickory is my favourite. They also make a nice tapenade.”
Smoked Prunes “I just bunged some prunes in when I was smoking some garlic on one occasion and discovered that they are really moreish, The softer the better, so tinned ones work quite well. A ‘dark’ smoke like cherry is particularly good. Feeling particularly experimental that day, I also made them into both a prune vinegar by blending with balsamic and an ice cream and would highly recommend both despite how bizarre they sound!” Smoked Coffee “This was inspired by my curious liking for coffee mixed with Lapsang Souchong tea, which is smoked. Cherry wood, bourbon-soaked oak and, of course, Lapsang Souchong tea itself are my favourite smoking mediums.”
Smoked Dark Chocolate “This works well in savoury dishes such as mole or in desserts. Lapsang Souchong is also good here but a mix of Bourbon soaked oak and Jack Daniel’s whisky barrel wood is my favourite. Simply place the chocolate in a bowl with a little milk to stop it sticking and in about five to six minutes you’ll have melted smoky chocolate.”