Salmo Salar by Max Jones

"The mountain is like the sea, Max. She gives you life, but she can also take it," explained cheesemaker Catherine Richard through a wrinkled grin, as she hung up her cheese cloths to dry outside her remote stone chalet, 2000m high in the shadow of an Alpine glacier. It’s a phrase that has stuck with me, and eventually led me to a tiny fish smokery in Ireland, amongst the hills and standing stones of the West Cork coastline.


There is a sense of normality and purpose in the lives of true artisans of food, people who have learned how to engage with their environment to feed themselves. They represent the great passing on of human knowledge, with a profound understanding of how to live in a given landscape – a nobility in their craft that is threatened but unsullied by big industry. I am drawn to these folk, like Catherine, living harmoniously within the alpine peaks, locked into the seasons as she migrates her small herd up and down the mountain each year. As inevitably as the ebb and flow of the tide, the snows yield to the summer sun, revealing wild mountain flora on which the animals graze before the cold season tightens its grip and they must head back down to the safety of the valley. A sustainable tradition that is hundreds of years old, where the unique, natural cheese produced from the herd’s milk will feed a community through the winter months – an uplifting evocation of the abundant summer, brightening the soul in darker days.

And now, to the sea.

As an angler, I had become increasingly despondent about fishing in the British Isles. Each hopeful trip out of London led to stillwaters and reservoirs, concrete man-made holes, circled with middle-aged men as grey as the water, fishing for genetically modified, triploid (sexless) rainbow trout that exist only to be caught.

Last year I learned about a producer of wild Atlantic smoked salmon in Ireland. I was intrigued as I had been thinking about the king of fish Salmo salar, too. How something that is meant to bring you close to the water – using skill to catch something wild for your tea – has become unobtainable, reserved only for those willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds for the privilege of hooking something real, which usually dies, even if returned, as the angler has consumed all of the salmon’s energy for reproduction in the fight. In a time where fish stocks are dwindling dramatically everywhere, our relationship with the salmon was all wrong. I was irked, saddened and confused to the point where I asked myself whether or not we should be killing this animal at all.

Trusting in how artisans glean the truest knowledge from living, and hearing that she was about to cease production in a losing battle against Environment Health Officers (EHOs) and government bodies forcing her to adhere to factory standards, I went to find fish smoker Sally Barnes. I drove to West Cork with the goal of trying to learn anything I could from this last human being who has devoted her life to master the techniques of preservation of one nature’s greatest ingredients.

Salmo salar is the epitome of the cyclical rhythm of life and circles in nature, with an ability to eternally provide.  The mythology of the returning and transforming salmon is deep rooted in our psyches:  a creature revered by the pagans and still honoured with joy and respect by First Nations people, and eaten by all.  Fionn MacCumhail gained the knowledge of the entire world by eating a salmon in Irish folklore and its distinctive shape has even been found in the 20,000 year old Cro-Magnon cave paintings in France.

It begins life in a stream as an egg nestled amongst glacial gravel beds formed at the end of the last Ice Age. In this ideal camouflage, it hatches into alevin before emerging into the clear, cool flowing water as fry. It feeds on invertebrates and develops markings to blend in to the greens and browns of fresh water becoming parr, that stays and feeds in the river for three years until it is about the size of your hand. Then, when it feels the call, this astonishing being begins smolting, swapping its river markings for a silver veneer of solid scales, undergoing internal changes to adapt to saltwater. The smolt finally turns to face downstream and heads out to sea, perceiving pheromones, chemicals and information from its lateral line that allows the fish to feel movement and changes in pressure which will guide the returning salmon to that same native inland stream. There it goes, past the pike’s snapping snout, bobbing, barbed Willie Gunn the angler and the cormorant’s probing beak, through brackish water into the estuary, weaving and dodging the seal’s snarling jaws then out and away, into the staggering might and infinite dark of the Atlantic Ocean.

The adult salmon now spends one to three years, sometimes more, riding the North Atlantic Drift to feeding grounds west of Greenland and the Norwegian Sea, hunting shoals of herring, devouring clouds of krill and other crustacea in the Arctic Circle, imparting the salmon’s flesh with its characteristic deep, red hue. It is wild and true. A colossal journey. The fish navigates the Earth’s magnetic fields using a ridge of iron-filled grey-brown flesh that runs the inner length of the lateral line, something you’ll recognise when cooking salmon. When it feels the urge to return to its native stream to spawn, it gorges itself till it can feed no more, having built up a hefty reserve of energy stored as belly fat.

The mature salmon now fasts until it has spawned, heading for its river. It is long and lean if its birthing stream be lazy and slow, or squat and tough with hog-like shoulders, a 15kg powerful beast with strength to crash through rapids and leap over rocks as its morphology corresponds with a particular body of water. Having reached its goal, it expends the last of its energy in reproduction, then usually dies. Carrion feeders will grab decaying salmon carcasses, drag them up a bank or tree and eat them at their own leisure and the remains will rot down and act as nutrition for plant life, and then insect life, which in turn feed the young fry.

Today however the gravel beds have been removed for construction developments, the polluted water has been acidified by the subsidised use of fertiliser and pesticides which pour into the rivers from farms. Salmon smell their native streams from miles out to sea, but some are no longer returning because the water has become toxic. Even though the angler may release the fish after netting it, its energy has been consumed in the fight and it will often perish. Global warming is changing the currents to the feeding grounds. The krill is being removed, harvested to make pellets for the farmed salmon, so that they can dye the flesh and market the product as organic.

This wild, migratory animal is crammed into vertical columns, where it festers in its own waste, attracting fatal amounts of sea lice. Sprayed with pesticides that poison the water, the mighty salmon becomes a deformed and unnatural creature debased by man, whose diseased state is poisoning its wild counterpart. It is mass production on a gruesome scale.

It is the degradation of the wild salmon that has so upset Sally Barnes: ‘I couldn’t give that passion and awe to a creature that I feel nothing towards. I wouldn’t have the heart to turn something fabulous into a commodity’. For Sally, it is the undeserved humiliation of a magnificent animal and friend. A fisherwoman and fisherman’s wife who began smoking fish to provide an income to support her young family, she attempted different recipes through trial and error when the fish were so abundant she would be eating wild salmon most nights of the week, eventually developing a delicious product that she could sell through the winter when the salmon season was over. There were three other smokeries in Ireland who processed wild fish, and now all of them have moved on to farmed fish. There are so many sanctions placed on wild salmon that it has become extremely difficult to get hold of, and in totally non viable quantities for a business. But Sally has stuck to her guns and will not touch farmed fish, as it is not the same animal.

‘It is a different species and should have a different Latin name’.

Stuck in the muck of a farm on a coastal hill in between Skibbereen and Castletownshend in the Irish rain, I eventually found myself spinning up a lane flanked with baling twine and dry (more like wet) stone walling dimpled with pennywort, up to the Woodcock Smokery. It is a modest farmhouse with a two room smokery and attached shipping container. Stepping inside, the first thing you notice is the remarkably sweet smell of beech-wood smoke, and surprising absence of fishy odours. The place seems very homely for a workshop, feeling lived in and tidy, clean overalls hung on pegs at the entrance and inside, three ancient wooden chopping boards attached to the wall opposite a single rack of yellow handled boning knives, the blades half the width they once were, having been expertly sharpened a thousand times. The two stainless steel smokers seem somehow friendly with their unique, chestnut brown smokey patina. Through into the packing room are two freezers, a fridge, a phone, some cast-iron scales, pots of pens and pencils, books, photographs, sun-bleached awards, a hundred Post-it notes strewn over the back wall and a 1980s vacuum-packer with just two buttons.

The whole workshop would seem like the extension of Sal’s home, were it not for anachronistic blue and white plastic signs dotted around the place: ‘HAND WASH SINK ONLY’, ‘CLEAN CLOTHES’, ‘DIRTY CLOTHES’, ‘TEMPERATURE CHECK’ they patronisingly blare, the fittings loose over time, pointlessly hanging at forgotten angles; the only purposeless objects in the workshop. Similarly the blue plastic apron and hat she has to wear seem anomalous to her mastery. What did she do in all the years of production before being obliged to use them?

Sally’s daughter, Joleine was set to take over from her mother 15 years ago – a perfect succession, as the elder imparts the knowledge of a lifetime to the new generation. But Joleine quit the smokery after a year involving over 20 unannounced visits by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, who were attempting to apply the same systems and protocols to a small artisan producer of a few hundred fish a year to that of a mass producer of farmed fish in their hundreds of thousands. The tremendous amount of extra work, bullying and hostile attitude almost killed the Woodcock Smokery.

I asked Sally if she had thought of processing more fish and perhaps employing more people, to ease up on work and earn a bit more money:

Well! D’you know! All of us in this life, if we’re lucky, have a job and it pays the bills, puts a roof over your head, food in your belly and the odd bottle of wine. And I’m really fortunate that I can now do that on a very limited number of fish. When I started there was no way I was interested in, you know: expand get big. That’s the drive when you do business training courses. I think they all think I’m completely mad because I haven’t gone to the next level and built a massive factory and employed about 400 people, because I’m working with a wild resource which is variable year on year.

You work with nature and nothing is guaranteed. Nothing. I would love to see many different smokeries in villages of the coastal communities, that take just what is needed when they can and nothing more. I have seen it, and it is sustainable, and I am trying to uphold that.

Catherine’s words echo in my ears. The sea is like the mountain, Max. It gives you life, but it also takes it away.

Sally is an example of real, human existence. Humble and full of respect for the planet, she is working in nature, with nature. She abhors human meddling and the poisoning of land and sea, and guards the methods that have been around for millennia. By continuing to produce wild smoked salmon, she is bearing the standard of how we can live in a genuinely sustainable way, but the standard is getting heavier and she is not as strong as she once was. Her unfaltering integrity is as inherently strong as the salmon’s call, and her journey just as tough. What she has learned of the land and sea through the salmon holds the key to the future of food and for this, I will be moving to Ireland in three weeks’ time to relieve her of her duties in the workshop, so that she may put her knowledge to paper in writing a book for the benefit of the memory of humankind.

The best time to catch wild Atlantic salmon for food is when they are just about to enter the estuary for their journey up river at the peak of their physical being. Wild Atlantic salmon is radically different from farmed fish. The massive white lines of fat between the muscle bundles are greasy and not a polyunsaturated fat like the wild salmon, which are much leaner and properly exercised from their adventure swimming against the current.  Were the farmed stuff not dyed, it would be white, whereas wild salmon varies in colour depending on the dietary preference of each individual animal, with those preferring crabs and shrimp turning out deeper red in hue to those who have a penchant for sand-eel and herring.

Now, Sally has honed this method over a lifetime of production. There is nobody who can reproduce the astonishingly delicious balance between salt, smoke and fish quite like her, as she knows her smokers and is completely in tune with the humidity, temperature and pressure’s effect on the draw of air and subsequent effect on the salmon on any given day. There are no real set rules, just feel what is happening and adjust accordingly. Pure intuition.  

‘Ten hours for the smoke like yesterday, Sal?’

‘No, no, no.’ she says, breathing in deeply, ‘Can’t you feel that? Can’t you hear outside? Give it five and half hours.’

You will need:

– A side of wild Atlantic salmon (this method is also good for fish like pollock)

– Fine sea salt

– Cold smoker (easy to build)

– Beech-wood chips, fine and coarse

– A spray bottle filled with water

– A plastic container big enough to hold the salmon

Pour 2-3cm of salt in the bottom of the container, skin side down. Cover the fish with salt, leaving three finger’s width of the tail bare, as it can get too salty being the thinnest part of the fish. Leave to salt for at least 4 hours, until it markedly holds its shape when you balance it on the back of your hand.

Wash the salt off the fish under running water and place it on the rack in the smoker.

Pack your fire box with beech-wood chips alternating between coarse and fine, two layers of each, spraying the chips wet with each layer. When full, push down firmly to condense the wood. Top up with fine wood-chips leaving only a half inch gap for oxygen at the top. Spray the last layer quite heavily with water and set the bottom alight.

Cold smoke for up to 10 hours, ensuring the temperature of the smoking chamber does not reach above 30 degrees C and the firebox does not flame. It needs to be a gentle smoulder throughout.

Look for when the fish will be a deeper colour, with some of the delicious oils rising to the top forming on the surface and the pin-bones are sticking out. Remove them with some pliers, pulling in the direction in which they are pointing. If you get all 32 bones then you most definitely deserve a celebratory pint.

Return the side to the smoker for anywhere between 1 and 10 hours, weather depending. Re pack the firebox if necessary.

When you check on it, look again for a matt finish, with more of the oils released above the pellicle which has formed. This is the mildly translucent layer of flesh that has subtly hardened, like amber, and is about half a millimetre thick. It is the natural barrier to the outside world that allows for the long life of this cured food. You will know when it is done.

Allow to cool with the chamber doors open, then leave to rest at four degrees C for at least 24 hours.

Serve with soda bread and unsalted cultured butter, avoiding lemon which is usually used to cut the slimy nature of farmed salmon. Sal likes to have it with a drizzle of light honey. But also with eggs, on toast, in pasta, risotto… this is real food!

I owe everything I know about salmon to my heartiest of pals and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. If you’re really serious about smoking wild salmon and wish to glean a deep understanding of her intuitive way of smoking, go and do a course with Sally Barnes, at the Woodcock Smokery.

Max Jones 

Instagram @mfh_jones