The majority of smoked fish cured today is in modern kilns, but for a hundred years fish was smoked in traditional smoke houses. The traditional smoke houses which have survived in England are mainly found in Grimsby where the main developments in the process took place. For generations smoked fish was referred to as “cured”, but with the advent of mechanical kilns traditional smokers adopted the term “smoked” to emphasise that their process was entirely dependant on the smoke produced from the smouldering embers of wood shavings. Mechanical kilns are merely electrically heated using a minimal amount of smoke in their process. However, Kiln curers also adopted the term “smoked” for their process to mask the difference between the two products. This has made it necessary for the original process to be known as “traditionally smoked”. No region has a greater tradition of expertise in this process than Grimsby which is why the port has been granted special recognition by the European Union for it’s long history of curing. Grimsby Traditional Smoked Cod and Haddock are now protected by a PGI (Protected Geographical Indicator) meaning only fish cured in the traditional process can be called Grimsby Traditional Smoked Fish.
To understand why this distinction is so important it is necessary to understand how and why the different processes developed.
In 1939 the Torry Research Station in Aberdeen developed the first mechanical kiln but it was only after the war that it began to come into use. In 1965 the same research station published a book which was severely biased in favour of the mechanical kiln and which declared “although in Britain most smoked fish is still made in traditional smoke houses the mechanical kiln is being rapidly adopted”. In truth most people within the industry new that kilns had serious limitations in reproducing products similar to those produced by traditional smokers. This was especially true of the finnan haddock which could not be produced satisfactorily in a mechanical kiln.
The clearance of the last curing houses down Albion Street, due to a major scheme to modernise that part of Grimsby, saw the relocation of Robert Birkwood’s near to Humber Street in about 1960. This was the last traditional fish curing factory to be built in Grimsby and it is remembered that it was not until a lining of tar had built up in the new smokehouses that the smoked fish produced acquired the full distinctive aroma normally associated with traditional fish smoking.
It was not the mechanical kiln that was responsible for the dramatic drop in numbers of traditional smokehouses from the pre war high but the development of the fish finger, which had been taking place during the same time that was to revolutionise people’s eating habits. Ironically, on the facing page of the 1970 list of fish curers is an advertisement for Bird’s Eye fish fingers proclaiming that their Grimsby factory was the largest of its type in the world.
The success of the fish finger and its close relative the breaded fillet ensured two things. First, an increasing level of indiscriminate fishing of the north Atlantic’s already depleted stocks. A thick coating of bread crumbs covered many inadequacies, which encouraged fishing for quantity rather than quality. Secondly, traditional products containing skin and bones, like the traditional smoked delicacies the kipper and finnan haddock, were to be shunned by consumers susceptible to slick marketing in an age that was still lax about product content.
However, losing the Cod Wars in the 1970s rocked the whole fishing industry and saw the demise of Grimsby’s once proud fleet of deep sea trawlers. The shortage of cod and haddock caused by this situation forced curers to experiment with other species in an attempt to keep in business. Until this time nearly all fish had been cold smoked but species such as mackerel and trout needed to be hot smoked. It was here that the versatility of the mechanical kiln could be useful.
By the 1980s the industry was a shadow of its former self having lost many key companies on the docks including Earnest Cox Ltd the most famous name in traditional smoking. Nevertheless, it was during this decade that links with Grimsby’s traditional sources of fish in Iceland, Faroe and Norway were re-established with the fish now coming into the port by container although the supply would never match that of pre-Cod War days.
After having struggled for nearly two decades, fish merchants were told at the beginning of the 1990s to improve their factories to comply with new EU hygiene standards, which were implemented in 1993. The cost of this was felt most heavily by traditional fish curers who had the most equipment to replace.
Included in the required improvements was also a need for greater temperature and quality control across the whole industry. This had a beneficial effect for fish curers as smoked fish cannot be iced like other fish and so more widespread chilling helped maintain quality better than before especially during the difficult summer months.
By the millennium only a few traditional fish smokers remained in the port to take advantage of a new awareness of food and of fish in particular.
Concerns over factory farmed produce and highly processed foods, especially meat, have got more discerning people to seek out foods which are natural in origin, produced carefully by hand, have no artificial flavours or colourings and yet have a distinctive taste. Grimsby Traditional Smoked Cod and Haddock score highly in all these categories. Normally the product is a good sized fillet of quality cod or haddock, usually non-dyed, with a cream to beige colour, produced purely by the overnight smoking in tall chimneys, which also gives the fish a dry texture and appealing aroma.
As well as the nutritional benefits and the unrivalled taste, Grimsby Traditional Smoked Fish also has good credentials for meeting the environmental challenges of the future. It makes sense for fish processing to be concentrated in one location for greater efficiency. Even after the loss of its trawler fleet Grimsby has continued successfully, showing that its strategic position and wealth of experience makes it a natural hub for handling fish. It is ideally placed to receive bulk shipments from the sustainably managed fishing grounds of Iceland, Faeroe and Norway.
Fish processing remains labour intensive, requiring a large pool of skilled fish filleters that only a large port like Grimsby can provide. Special skills and knowledge are particularly important in traditional fish smoking to maintain and monitor the quality of the product through its different stages of filleting, brining, and smoking. Mechanical kilns can simplify the process but at a cost of not only taste but also energy. In contrast to the natural slow cold smoking traditional process kilns have to be electrically heated and require a lot more energy to produce quick results.
Although there are only about six traditional fish smokers left in Grimsby there are scores of other firms specialising in different aspects of fish processing. This allows them collectively to transport their products most efficiently in large dedicated chilled transport units to inland markets.
The recognised status of Grimsby Traditional Smoked Fish means it will continue to thrive. However, this tradition is dependent on the ports continuing importance as a fish processing centre. Recently, the Humber Seafood Processing Cluster of Businesses have been recognised on a national level for the quality and contribution of their work and awarded a Cluster Mark. Along side the PGI these two distinctions highlight Grimsby’s continued strength and value within the seafood industry. This is good for the port’s processors and for its many customers, large and small, who depend on reliable deliveries of fresh sh to virtually anywhere in the country.