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Scotland’s Larder: Iain R. Spink's Original Smokies from Arbroath

Published: February 25, 2021
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Iain R. Spink has been called an unofficial ambassador for Arbroath Smokies, and he is never far away from his home port, where his family ran their fish processing factory for about 100 years.

He gets a bit misty eyed about the history of Auchmithie village, the original home of the Smokie.

He said: "There is a whole different atmosphere down there. That is where my granddad and my great granddad made them and you feel like you are going back in time."

Smokie making in Auchmithie

Shelling mussels for baiting the fishing lines in Auchmithie. Credit The Fraser Collection Gallery

At turn of the century the local town council in Arbroath lured the fishermen and their families away from little village to boost the economy of the bigger town.

They were promised newer housing, facilities and a better harbour so Auchmithie Smokies came to be associated more with Arbroath.

Back in time

He is the fifth generation of his family to work in the fish trade but he sadly will be the last generation.

Iain started working in the family owned fish house when he was a teenager, he said, "it was never my intention, I just finished up working there after I left school. "

In those days he mainly gutted cod, which were landed locally and destined for Bird's Eye and Findus.

"The cod has all gone now due to over fishing, but I feel privileged to have grown up in that era when Arbroath had two markets a day.

"I’m obviously saddened at the loss of all the fishing boats with only a few small shellfish boats remaining, the harbour is still bustling with activity in a different way with many visiting yachts and pleasure boats."

He describes the factory as, "a big shed with an asbestos roof and no heating, where we would break ice off the water trough in the morning. But you just got on with it."

In those days he said, "making smokies was just one of the things I did. It was not a job I was very enthused about at the time, and I never realised back then, that it would become the core of my business."

Over a barrel

He now smokes haddock in an whisky barrel the old fashioned way, a method that had effectively died out by the 1960's and a skill that he had to relearn.

His journey began when Iain helped his father to organise a demonstration of how smokies used to be made.

Rainbow Trout about to be smoked alongside the haddock in the barrel. Smoked in the same way they are equally delicious. Photograph Lisa Ferguson

 

 

Iain left the family fish processing business in 2001. The reason was, the company had been bought over and his father retired he said, "I lasted about a year, I couldn't hack the new regime it wasn't a family business anymore."

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He missed the range of customers which included; hotels, restaurants, shops and private customers. The new owners had decided to focus on supermarkets and he said, "I basically became a production line manager. I just detested it - I cannot say how much I hated it.

"It was the hardest decision in my life, leaving the only trade that I knew, with all those generations of history.

"I moved to the highlands to stay with my then new girlfriend, who is now Mrs Spink.

He studied for BSc in Environmental Science at University of the Highlands and Islands, but during summer he found himself to be a poor student with no income so it was then that he started up the new smokie making venture and booked up a few pitches at various Highland games around the country.

"There was a great deal of interest in both the process and the product as customers could see the whole process being demonstrated before them and then enjoy it hot and juicy straight from the fire."

Smoke gets in your eyes

Iain said, "I never imagined for a second that I would go back into full time Smokie making again. When I left Arbroath I thought I was shutting the door, with a tear in my eye driving up to the Highlands to begin my new life.

"A friend of mine asked if I'd go to Cupar farmers' market (as a favour) I went along and took a box or two of fish, but a monster queue appeared and the whole lot disappeared in an hour and a half."

Iain R. Spink

You will find Iain R. Spink at Cupar Farmers' Market on the third Saturday of every month. Photograph Lisa Ferguson

So he returned the next month with double the amount and sold out again. He said, "from that one market it just grew."

At the end of his degree he had created a viable food business.

A lot of people in Scotland knew about Arbroath Smokies, but their only experience was a dried up thing in a fish shop or supermarket so his way of making them allows people to experience the thing at its absolute best.

Demand for his produce grew and he said, "it is a real commitment to work every weekend at events all over the country - it is not for everybody."

First he removes the turf off the grass before setting the half barrel about a foot into the ground to insulate the barrel and minimise draught.

He uses a half barrel from the Speyside cooperage, Craigellachie. He then lines the inside of the barrel with slates to protect it from worst of the fire and burns hardwood, mainly oak and beech in the bottom.

Smokie making in Auchmithie

Smokie making in Auchmithie. Credit The Fraser Collection Gallery

The village of Auchmithie is the true home of Smokie making he said, "I've got a lot of old pictures where you can see the old fishwives."

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He dismisses the local folklore about a house burning to the ground and people finding smoked haddock in the ash that tasted really nice.

He said, "romantic rubbish. I think Viking settlers came here and brought their own particular fish preservation skills. In the old days they had no refrigeration so food, was preserved by pickling or smoking.

"The Smokies I make now are lightly cooked and lightly salted, they are not designed to be kept for long periods of time so they are completely different from the old dark salty ones," Iain said.

All part of the process

The haddock are gutted at sea, the heads removed and the belly cavity cleaned out, before being washed and dry salted.

He said, "the salting time depends on the fish themselves: if they are small and skinny they might need an hour or two but if they are really big and just out of the sea, a day and half wouldn't hurt them, the typical average would be about 6-8 hours."

He also ties them by hand in pairs using traditional jute string, "I like it to look as authentic as it possibly can, everything I use is the same as a couple of hundred years ago like the old pictures the process hasn't really changed."

After they are salted they are dipped into clean fresh water and then hung onto a special triangular shaped stick to drip.

The fire is lit and the fish are hot smoked at up to 70 degrees, "any higher than that you compromise the quality of the thing: they don't like too much heat," he said.

Each half barrel holds 44 pairs of normal sized fish and there are a lot of variables to cooking them correctly.

A mix of Beech and Oak wood fuel the flames. Photograph Lisa Ferguson

Coronavirus

Covid has had an impact on the farmers' markets with only St Andrews on the 1st Saturday of the month, and Cupar on the 3rd Saturday of the month surviving.

He said, "it is really difficult times with social distancing measures, which is a shame because the markets are really good."

His entire programme of summer events have been wiped out, he said, "I lost my entire calendar and I make 3/4 of my income in the summer but I have had no compensation because of the nature of my business."

Iain has smoked at events like The Highland Show, The Golf Open at Carnoustie, and even T in the Park.

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He said, "I despair and I'm frustrated by the lack of support it just seems wholly unfair."

The only upside of Covid has been the mail order side of his business which has taken off but this comes nowhere near compensating for the loss of the core business income generated at events.

But he admits, "if I'm honest with you it's not what I'm really about. I'm about making a unique fresh product on the day, which lets folk experience the whole package."

"I had planned to taper down a bit last year but the Covid effect was akin to falling off a cliff for the business. However I’m confident things will slowly pick up again and I’ll get back to doing what I love."

"There is a big part of me that doesn't want to stop, it is very much in my blood and it wouldn't feel right if i wasnae doing it."

Fame and fortune

Iain said, "I've had more than my fair share of publicity. I carved a niche of my own which has attracted a lot of media attention so everyone else making Arbroath Smokies benefits."

Celebrity chefs including; Rick Stein, Nigel Slater, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and James Martin are big fans.

Arbroath Smokies. Photograph Lisa Ferguson

In 2006 he won the best producer at the BBC Food and Farming Awards, he said, "I didn't realise it at the time but it was a massive thing to win. Two of the four finalists were from Scotland, we both stood beside each other at the farmers' markets."

Another award he is particularly proud of is his three star gold at The Great Taste Awards.

His father, Bob ( R R Spink) fought the case for the Arbroath Smokie to be given protected geographical indication (PGI) but since Brexit they are still covered by a new geographical indication scheme (GI)..

Before the PGI protection was gained, there were many companies all over the UK producing imitation  ‘Arbroath Smokies’ which were invariably poor quality.

Iain explained, saying: "it was just doing our business so much harm that my dad felt something had to be done, so he rightly got the PGI protection in place and they said it was one of the strongest cases they had ever seen."

Iain has also written and published an Arbroath Smokie Bible which features 30 dishes, he said, "it is a versatile ingredient and we came up with the recipes ourselves.

"My dad's recipe was a variation of Cullen Skink (cold smoked haddock) which he called Cullen Spink (hot smoked haddock) soup."

Future plans

Iain said, "I have definitely created something here that deserves to carry on.

"There is one lad who has always kept in touch with me, that wants to come back to making Smokies but it's a pity it's not a sixth generation of mine."

He said, "With my Smokies, you always know what you are getting, a haddock with a bit of salt, smoke and cooked right in front of you. You cannae get much better than that eh?"

Original Arbroath Smokies

Iain R. Spink

Original Arbroath Smokies, info@arbroathsmokies.net 01575 540330 or 07738 526632

 

• READ MORE: Scotland’s Larder: Jamie Brown from Jarvis Pickle Pies

Scotland’s Larder: Jamie Brown from Jarvis Pickle Pies

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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