EATING FOR BRITAIN: KIPPERS AND CHILLI, STRANGE NORTHUMBRIAN BEDFELLOWS
So, what makes a product local?
It should be made locally, of course. But, does it need to contain ingredients that are all sourced locally too?
I had this discussion at some length yesterday with Neil Robson, a fourth generation producer of kippers in the famous small village of Craster in Northumberland. Neil is pushing for “Product of Geographical Importance” for his kippers in much the same way as was recently achieved by the Spink family for the Arbroath Smokie.
On the one hand, he is getting a lot of support because, of course, Robson’s kippers are made in Craster at the last remaining smokehouse in this once bustling little harbour village. On the other hand, he is encountering problems because the raw materials, the herring, are no longer local. In fact, they are no longer even British, coming in frozen from Norway by the pallet load every week.
As Neil explained, it is not a case of not wanting to use British or local fish, there just aren’t any. The seven year ban on herring fishing off the East coast of Britain in the 1970’s may have seen the stocks replenished but it also served to decimate the infrastructure of the industry and now, few, if any boats fish for herring off the coast. Neil used herring from the West coast of Scotland for a while but they too became scarce when Scottish fishermen followed the filthy lucre trail of shellfish trawling for the Spanish market.
Whatever the origins of his fish, the process remains much as it did since the kipper was first “invented” in the early 1800’s (although smoking fish, of course, had been around for centuries) and The Craster kipper still retains its pre-eminence on well discerning breakfast tables.
The herring are split and cleaned before being brined and then hung in a smoking room for nearly sixteen hours so the cold smoke can impart its subtle flavour. Unlike the Smokie, kippers need cooking before eating, but just like the Smokie, when they emerge they are glistening, oily and golden.
Neil’s suggestion for cooking was to simply place in a pot and cover with boiling water for three to four minutes. This not only gently cooks the flesh but also prevents the smell escaping.
A beautiful thing and, as I drove away from Craster to my next port of call, following the Robson van to the A1, my car was filled with the pleasing smell of smoke.
It was a long drive to Haltwhistle, across the other side of the county, but it was worth the journey to meet Dan May, co-owner of Trees Can’t Dance, the most Northerly chilli farm in the world.
Dan by background was a musician and landscape photographer and his work took him to the Southwest of the USA where he developed a love of chilli. Returning to the U.K he found he could not recreate the dishes he had come to love because he could not get the right chilli. So, he began to grow them. At first in his greenhouse and then in poly tunnels. Now he grows over fifty varieties and has created a range of products to show them off to their best effect.
It takes a lot for me to rave about a hot sauce, they are usually either all heat or too sweet. The Trees Can’t Dance range is easily some of the best I tasted and I was particularly taken with a fresh green chilli chutney and a bright yellow lime based sauce from a Belizian recipe.
Most interesting of all, Dan showed me their latest creations, fresh made marinades that are sold in bags. Simply tear off the top of the bag, insert your meat or fish, re-seal and place in the fridge for a few hours before grilling or barbecuing. It’s a brilliant idea and I can’t wait to try them.
It was a bit of a quick visit to Northumbria, but well worth the long hours driving to meet some passionate producers and taste some amazing food.
A couple of quick stops in Yorkshire and then back home to London to plan the next stage of the journey.