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.
So writes food conservationist Max Jones in an introduction to the work of Sally Barnes, the last wild fish smoker in West Cork, Ireland. As with all our producers and cheesemakers, Sally sources the best ingredients she can find and treats them with great respect, ‘working in nature, with nature.’ Her wild Atlantic smoked salmon, preserved in the traditional method using only salt and hardwood smoke, has been a special addition to our Christmas offering at Neal’s Yard Dairy since the late 1980s.
Our founder Randolph Hodgson first discovered this delicacy on selection trips he made to Irish cheesemakers, notably Veronica and Norman Steele at Milleens, and Giana and Tom Ferguson at Gubbeen. They introduced him to the wild smoked salmon of Chris Jepson, who had built his own boat to catch salmon and subsequently his own smokehouse to cure it, only accessible when the tide was out. As we have done for other Irish favourites discovered on selection trips, such as Barry’s Tea, we started bringing it back to share with our customers. When Chris retired he directed us to Sally, who has smoked her fish in West Cork since 1979. We have sold limited quantities of her wild Atlantic smoked salmon over the festive season ever since.
In a world where our food systems are increasingly reliant on mass production, Sally is the only wild fish smoker in the region to continue with this near-lost art of preservation. Two years ago, Max Jones relocated to West Cork to work with Sally in her workshop and learn these preserving techniques first-hand. At the beginning of his time at Woodcock Smokery, he shared with us an insight into her work and the importance of preserving these traditional practices in the face of an industry that increasingly relies on mass production. Read this here.
Two years later, he describes the impact of Covid-19 on their small coastal community for Vittles food newsletter. Read it in full here. We spoke again to Max about how Woodcock Smokery fared during lockdown, and what the future may hold for those involved in these traditional fishing communities.
When the patchwork of lockdowns across the world saw the closures of restaurants and shops, this had an enormous ripple effect back to food producers who rely upon the hospitality industry for steady business. As we saw with the British cheese industry, producers were losing huge portions, if not all, of their trade overnight as the world slowly ground to a halt.
In March, anglers set out to sea and returned to shore with hauls of fresh haddock, only to find that the European markets for which these fish were destined had collapsed. Fresh fish spoils quickly if not preserved. This glut of high-quality fish, normally reserved for large-scale export, was offered to Sally to preserve before they spoiled. At this moment, the Smokery got a taste of the frenetic urgency that existed in the past when this traditional preserving was absolutely vital to the communities it served. Presented with an excess of perishable food and no clear indication at the time of when supply will resume, the need to quickly preserve these products to last through the ‘drought’ period was paramount.
Max describes the atmosphere in the Smokery during this time:
This now meant a kind of forced return to hyper-locality, and, by the pier, the Union Hall fishmonger’s slab was piled high. The Smokery telephone rang often, with offers of well-priced fish that needed dealing with, fast. It all got very real for a while, urgency in the air, where we knuckled down for this thing that had to be done, because it was there, now. For a month from mid-March, we hammered through a glut of prime haddock in an effort to support the fishers and also to do right by the local community, fish included. We preserved this highly perishable catch with salt and smoke to give it a huge shelf-life and make it tasty as hell.
Fortunately, Covid-19 restrictions lifted in time for Sally’s primary source of wild fish, angler Mikey, to catch the mighty migratory salmon as they journeyed inland from the Atlantic Ocean to freshwater rivers. After years of declining fish stocks and the financial reality of fishing quotas imposed on small-boat fishing, the salmon returned in great numbers this year, more than Mikey and his fellow anglers had seen for fifty years. They caught their full quota of salmon in just the first four weeks of the eight-week season.
Salmon can be an excellent bioindicator. They are a species whose population can reveal much about the status of our environment because they inhabit both the sea and inland waters. Max believes it is fair to assume that once giant trawlers had stopped fishing out at sea and there was less noise in the water, the ocean’s inhabitants began to thrive.
Take when there is an abundance, preserve the glut, and leave them alone to ensure a good harvest next season. This is possibly the first time these species have had a real break from relentless fishing in the last 50 years. We might just see a mighty haul next year, and a larger average fish size to boot.
As Max observes, ‘You work with nature and nothing is guaranteed. Nothing.’ Covid-19 restrictions disrupted the established modern food chain in the coastal fishing villages of West Cork, and subsequently revived the fast-fading tradition of preservation through smoking. For Max, the effect of Covid-19 has given fresh impetus to Sally’s ethos of working with nature’s bounty. ‘By continuing to produce wild smoked salmon, she is bearing the standard of how we can live in a genuinely sustainable way.’
What began with Max’s pilgrimage to learn from Sally’s mastery will now be shared with an even wider audience with the launch of their courses at Woodcock Smokery. Sally will teach visitors the near-lost art of preserving wild fish using traditional techniques and natural ingredients. In sharing her knowledge of these time-honoured fishing and preservation methods, she hopes to reconnect our generation and future generations to what was once embedded in Irish coastal communities.
We only receive a limited number of these special fish each year due to fishing quotas. Wild salmon is remarkably different in flavour from the farmed fish that is widely available today. The smoking process Sally uses is much more thorough and uses only salt and hardwood smoke, no other additives. This results in a smoked fish with a drier, firmer texture, and less oily texture than smoked salmon made from industrially farmed fish.