An Ode To The Arbroath Smokie
Smoking is cool and Charlie Connelly wants you to know it.
A few miles north-east of Dundee – on the Angus Coastal Route to Aberdeen – is the windswept, sea-lashed but noble town of Arbroath. It is famous for three things: The 1320 Declarataion of Arbroath which asserted the independence of the Scots for ‘as long as but a hundred of us remain alive’, the 1885 Scottish Cup tie in which the town’s football team narrowly edged out Bon Accord by a world record 36 goals to nil, and the piscine delight that is the Arbroath smokie.
The dried, smoked haddock produced here is such a delicacy that it’s earned European Union protection for the name in order to prevent swindlers and mountebanks producing pale imitations of the real thing. If your haddock’s not been smoked here, it ain’t a proper smokie.
In search of the genuine article I headed for the harbour, easy to find at the right time of day – just follow the smell of faintly fish-tangy woodsmoke and you can’t go wrong. Once in the fit o’the toon (the area around the harbour), I found the cheery yellow-painted frontage of Arbroath Fisheries on Seagate, a narrow, wind-huddled street with its back turned to the North Sea.
A family business dating back to 1964 the shop has, under the guidance of Campbell Scott, developed an international clientele thanks to the internet. ”We send our smokies across Europe and even to Canada”, he tells me, ”It’s a long way from when my dad would drive his Volvo estate around the local area selling door to door.”
As he shows me through to his smokehouse, the musky embers of that morning’s fire still glowing beneath the wooden slats where the morning’s batch had hung, Campbell tells me how the smokie originated in the tiny fishing village of Auchmithie, near Arbroath. When Arbroath’s harbour expanded in the twilight of the nineteenth century the Auchmithie crew moved in, but the number of smokehouses has declined in recent years, along with the Arbroath fishing fleet (just one boat works out of the town these days).
Campbell, having moved perceptively with the times, oversees a rare success story based on the fact that there will always be a demand for good quality. And his smokies are about the best there are.
”The fresh fish are salted overnight, tied up in pairs”, he tells me, ”then they’re hung over the fire here and covered until they’re ready to eat.”
”How long does that take?” I ask.
”Just until they’re ready,” he smiles, ‘‘timing that comes with experience.”
Back inside the shop I try my first Arbroath smokie, fresh from the smokehouse. Infused with the tang of burnt hardwood the fish is delicious; more moist than I’d expected and with a taste that’s as much in the nostrils as on the tongue.
”You know the other thing Arbroath is famous for?” Campbell calls after me as I head out with a packet of smokies under my arm, ”Billy Connolly lost his virginity in a caravan park here.”
Ordinarily it’s a thought that should cause any rational person an immediate loss of appetite. It says a lot for Campbell’s skill in the smokehouse that I get back into the car and immediately demolish another one, the troubling image of a rocking caravan notwithstanding.