We jump out of the car and head down a steep, single track road towards the beach. As we round the corner we have an elevated view and can see Iain setting up. The hole is already dug, the fire pit set and fish ready to be smoked.
He looks up, sees us and gives us a wave. We quicken our pace eager to find out more about the history and techniques associated with Arbroath Smokies.
“This fresh haddock has been salted for around six hours, washed and then prepared before hanging. The fish has been gutted, cleaned, salted, cut down the middle and re-tied together at the tail before being hung over a special wooden rail.”
Iain Spinks is a fifth-generation smokie producer. However, he left the family business 15 years ago after an ownership change. He says, “Smoking was only one part of the business but it was the area that I loved. What I didn’t enjoy was mass producing for a faceless customer. So I left to set up on my own.” Iain is now one of the only people who smokes fish in the traditional way; the same way that people in the area have done for generations. Everything that he uses, the hessian bags, the old whisky barrels, the hardwood logs, the fresh local fish, is in keeping with traditions. He says “Smoking fish is in my blood and I’m passionate about keeping the old tradition of cooking fish this way.”
He pauses for a moment to lay the fish on top of an aged whisky barrel that is housing a hardwood fire burning below. He turns back to look at us and says, “This fresh haddock has been salted for around six hours, washed and then prepared before hanging. The fish has been gutted, cleaned, salted, cut down the middle and re-tied together at the tail before being hung over a special wooden rail.” There are a number of fish on each rail and he places five rails on the barrel before covering them with hessian sacks. He adds, “The hessian goes over the top to reduce the flames, allowing the fish smoke and the steam to mingle at the same time.” This traditional technique has seen him win numerous awards over the years, being particularly proud of the three gold stars he won at the ‘Great Taste Awards.’ Only 129 producers from 10,000 entries received the prestigious award.
While the fish are cooking we talk more about his family, “Back in 2004 my dad secured a PGI for Arbroath Smokies.” The PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) offers protection for the local industry. Iain recalls, “We approached a large supermarket with the idea of supplying our Smokies. It turned out they already had Arbroath Smokies… made in Grimsby! Not only were they not from Arbroath, they actually tasted terrible!” His dad realised the harm it was doing to their traditional way of life and as a result he set about getting the PGI protection. Now, thanks to Iain’s dad, to use the name ‘Arbroath Smokie’ the product must be… “a hot smoked haddock which is made within a five-mile radius of Arbroath.”
Iain moves back to the barrel to check the fish, he removes one of the hessian sacks, the smoke escapes and we catch our first glance of the smoked fish. At this point we feel honoured to have Iain cooking for us because over the years some very famous names have shared this experience, such as Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater, Gordon Ramsey, Gary Rhodes and James Martin. He looks up smiles and says, “They’re ready, would you two like to try one?” We bolted forward at the offer, ready to try our first Arbroath Smokie. Iain boned the fish and then passed it to us, saying, “This is what I really enjoy about my job, meeting people and seeing their reactions when they get a fresh warm smokie straight off the fire.”
We all stand around the barrel, the oak and beech still burning, the noise of the sea gently lapping against the shore and the smoke dancing in the wind as the warm flakey fish just crumbles in our hands and we taste magical bite after magical bite. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience. No one else produces Arbroath Smokies in this traditional fashion anymore, but Iain has started to pass on his skills to an apprentice, so hopefully this technique, taste and magical experience can long continue to put smiles on the faces of lots of other lucky people.