English writer, Evelyn Waugh, once famously accused the whole country of Norway as ‘smelling of kippers’.
I reckon I’m smelling of kippers as I stand surrounded by thousands of herrings, gutted, salted, split open and tanning slowly in the smoke of perhaps Britain’s most prestigious kippery.
Craster Kippers has been catching, smoking and distributing this breakfast-time delicacy for over 150 years in the small Northumbrian coastal village of Craster, near the picturesquely-named Seahouses. Until now, I have only encountered them on the occasional British breakfast menu. Now I am in danger of becoming smoked too.
Experimenting with local flavours, I once ordered one in England, then my companion warned me “you’ll enjoy that for the rest of the day”.
Well, “enjoy” may not have been the correct term, but I certainly remembered my morning kipper for several hours as its fumes indigestibly returned to me.
So what is a kipper? Kipper-meister, Neil Robson, who guides us around the smokehouse, explains that the fish used today are mainly Norwegian herring, available year-round, although when the North Sea was fished out and there was a ban for seven years, they bought their herring from Western Scotland.
‘Once nearly every village had a smoker,’ he tells us. Only one was left in 1856, so for four generations since then his family, the Robsons, have been keeping the fires alive. Literally.
Only the plumpest fish are used, he assures us, and today they are split by machine, before being washed, brined and hung on hooks) before their time in the smokehouse.
‘They go in as herrings,’ says Neil, ‘and come out as kippers!’
It’s actually the smoke that gives each kipper a distinctive flavour. At Crasters they use oak shavings and the fish stay in those scented fumes for 14-16 hours.
Seems no one is too sure where the name came from (maybe Old English, maybe German, maybe Icelandic) but “kipper” has entered our language. Originally salmon were used, but herring became the fish of choice for kippering after the 19th century. Now other meats may be “kippered” which means they have been salted and smoked.
Kipper season comes at a time when salmon are off-limits for fishing, and it makes good sense that throughout the world’s colder countries fish is salted, smoked, cured or processed to keep it available for winter.
With facts and figures swirling like smoke in my head, there was just one more thing to ask Neil Robson: How do you actually cook a kipper?
‘Easy,’ says Neil. ‘This is my way. Take a jug of boiling water. Stand your kippers in the jug for two minutes with their tails sticking out of the top.’ Now that’s a technique from an expert I shall use – if I ever need it.
So far I have tried Arbroath smokies (smoked haddock) in Scotland on the famous train, the Royal Scotsman – at breakfast of course! And I’ve sampled bacalau, Portugal’s iconic salted cod, used in a multitude of dishes. But I’ve yet to have Finnan Haddie, Scottish smoked haddock.
As you’d expect it’s possible to order kippers online http://www.kipper.co.uk/ but don’t be surprised if you get a funny look from the postman.
Just tell him you’re expecting him to wish you Many Happy Returns!