Scottish produce, seafood in particular, is special. And the country’s food makers are expert in methods of preservation; among the most adept when it comes to smoking techniques. Salmon is one to be given this treatment regularly, trout another. Even scallops are smoked by some. By far the most rewarding – by a stretch – are Arbroath smokies, a protected status food that might be the pinnacle of fostering a traditional Scottish fishing practice.
Arbroath smokies are known around the world for a reason. Fine haddock has been prepared in this way since the 19th century. Their production is limited to within five miles of Arbroath Townhouse – most is done on the harbour in an area known as Fit o’ the Toon – the centrepoint of a 12th-century fishing village that perches on the North Sea coast between Aberdeen and Dundee.
How Arbroath makes its smokies hasn’t really changed in centuries. After the haddock is landed by local fishers, it is salted overnight, then tied in pairs and left to dry (this in itself is a particular process, but we don’t have all day in this short column). The fish are then hung in a covered barrel containing a hardwood fire of oak and beech and left to smoke for up to an hour. When plump with gold and copper tones and wrinkled like old parchment, they are ready.
There isn’t a flavour like the Arbroath smokie. It is salty, buttery and soft, bold and concentrated but to a remedial, soothing degree. And there isn’t a distinct or overpowering waft of fish. Rather, the light aroma of a log fire – or the smouldering salt-oak of a foiled Viking longboat – and the fish is flaky, crying out for toast or the waxy heft of a freshly plucked new potato.
And so to Burns Night, when the opportunity to feast on the best of Scotland presents itself. The best one of these I’ve ever enjoyed came about at Quo Vadis, the Soho restaurant and members’ club, where in the dining rooms upstairs chef patron Jeremy Lee (newly an MBE) and the team from Black Axe Mangal (now titled FKABAM) put on quite the show. There was offal flying about, fish too – a preserved sea urchin arrived at some point, I seem to recall – and a fair amount to drink.
There were no Arbroath smokies then but Lee is one of their most illustrious advocates. Here, he shares a beautiful recipe that uses them. The dish would be a fine precursor to haggis.
Arbroath smokies, sea purslane, green beans and potatoes
4 Arbroath smokies (or 600g smoked haddock)
40g unsalted butter
750g cooked new potatoes, such as Jersey, Ayrshire or Cornish
300g green beans, cooked
10–15g sea purslane (a sea vegetable, available in specialist shops or online)
Remove the skin from the fish. Carefully lift away the smoked flesh, and remove any bones.
Place the flakes of haddock in a wide-bottomed pan with 100ml of water and the butter. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and place over a gentle heat to warm through, with only the gentlest movement to keep the haddock from breaking up. Cut the potatoes into 6-8mm-thick slices and lay them on the fish in the pan. Add the cooked beans.
Strew with the picked sea purslane leaves. Cover and simmer a further 2–3 minutes. Serve in bowls.
A note from the chef: Consider, too, samphire, monksbeard, peas or a mix of young spinach and watercress for this salad. Should a smokie prove difficult to find, by all means use smoked haddock of the palest hue.
Recipe from Cooking: Simply and Well for One or Many by Jeremy Lee, published by Fourth Estate