FISH, SMOKED. Wind-drying is the most ancient and basic way of preserving fish. Add the discovery of fire, and early humans might have found that fish hung up over a fire dried more quickly, and that, if the fire was smoky, fish would acquire a different flavor and keep better. Indeed Cutting (1955) suggests that people might have begun to smoke fish deliberately in the Neolithic. However, it seems to be uncertain whether such smoking of fish was carried out later on, in ancient Egypt or classical Greece and Rome.
As Sue Shephard (2000) points out, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of what was evidently a substantial fish-smoking "factory" in Poland, dating back to the seventh century. And it is clear that European use of the technique was greatly expanded, perhaps mainly in order to deal with gluts of herring, in the medieval period. Dedicated smoke houses used for this purpose were in common use in England, and no doubt elsewhere in the fourteenth century.
Smoke is highly complex, having a couple of hundred or more constituents. So what it does to fish is also complex, but can be summarized by saying that it deposits on the fish various phenols, aldehydes, tars, etc. and that the combined effect of some of these, which have bactericidal properties, is to make the fish keep noticeably better.
In modern times progress has been made in the construction of special ovens for smoking fish; in analyzing the constituents of smoke which are responsible for changes of flavor; in the choice of wood shavings or chips whose smoke produces the best results; and in elaborating the techniques of both hot and cold smoking.
Hot smoking was developed in northern Europe in medieval times. In this process the smoke temperature is very high and the fish is wholly or partly cooked by being smoked. Herring which were hot smoked on the northern coast of Germany were known as Bücklinge, which became "buckling" in English, but the process was also used for many other species of fish. The hot smoking of fish is also common in Africa. For example, a kind of shad is hot smoked in Ghana in primitive kilns made from oil drums. Hot smoked fish is succulent and tasty but in general does not travel or keep as well as cold smoked. Cold smoking, on the other hand, is not a cooking process; it consists simply in hanging fish in smoke (which may of course be slightly warm, but that is irrelevant), and the result keeps well.
As for the choice of combustible, the traditional preference in Britain was for oak, with ash as second choice and peat being used until recently in Scotland, especially for domestic smoking in their kitchen chimneys by fish-ermen's wives. In Russia, the woods used have included alder, oak, poplar, and lime. Wood from coniferous trees has also been used, but imparts a resinous flavor.
Nowadays there are numerous books on home smoking, explaining how various small contraptions can be used to produce smoked fish; and a few books which treat the subject in a general and historical manner, while not neglecting technical aspects. In this last category falls the book by Cutting and that by Burgess and others (including Cutting, 1965). Zaitsev and others (1969), in their 700-page manual Fish Curing and Processing, are also helpful on the technical aspects. Sea fish smoked in Russia include sturgeon, cod, herring, whitefish and grey mullet. Freshwater fish include carp, bream, and pike-perch.
In modern times, the best known smoked fish is smoked salmon, now prepared in many countries and figuring on innumerable restaurant menus around the world. Many of the salmon which are smoked are farmed salmon, but the proportion of farmed to wild varies greatly. In North America more than half of the smoked salmon are farmed, most coming from British Columbia, but even so smoked wild salmon is much easier to obtain there than in Europe. Traditions of smoking salmon in the Pacific Northwest go back a long way, and Shephard has an interesting passage about the cultural significance which American Indians attached to these fish, believing them to be "undersea people who put on salmon skins to swim ashore and offer themselves as food."
Smoked eel, of which the best comes from the Netherlands, is now being produced in the United States, in Scotland, and elsewhere; and smoked mackerel has become a success internationally. These are all fish with a relatively high oil content, a feature which works well with smoking. However, less oily fish such as cod and haddock are also smoked successfully. In Britain there is a long tradition of smoking haddock.
Despite the ubiquity of smoked salmon and the importance of smoked haddock, many people in Britain regard the kipper, a form of smoked herring, as their top favorite. It dates back only to the 1840s, the period when railways began to facilitate rapid transport of cured fish from the ports to other areas, and soon achieved prominence because it was so useful in helping to conserve the huge catches of herring which used to be made off British coasts.
In North America, smoking has been used for more and more species, both freshwater (e.g., trout, also a highly popular smoked fish in Europe) and marine. Whitefish, marlin and tuna are examples of larger fish which have to be smoked in fillets. Swordfish is another large fish of global distribution that is smoked in many of the countries where it is caught. Halibut may be smoked, indeed this treatment seems to be the best way of dealing with Greenland halibut, a delicacy in Denmark.
In Asia, much of the smoking of fish is carried out on an artisanal small-scale basis, and the number of species involved is large. Smoked snapper (for example pla kaphong in Thailand) is excellent. In China, especially in the south, smoked pomfret is an important delicacy.
It is not only whole fish or fillets of fish which are smoked. Smoked cod roe is a prominent example of other parts being so treated. In Greece, imported smoked cod roe has largely replaced the dried roe of grey mullet as the basis for the delicious fish roe paste known internationally as taramosaláta.
The indications are that the list of smoked fish and smoked fish products will be progressively extended, since most fish are susceptible to smoking and smoked fish, with smoked salmon in the vanguard, has been winning greater and greater consumer acceptance. In times gone by, smoking fish was done to preserve it. Nowadays there is a further, gastronomic, reason. The flavor of smoked fish has come to be appreciated in its own right. If the proportion of the global catch of sea fish which is smoked goes up, that should be viewed as a favorable development. It should lead to less waste, greater flexibility in the use of fish, and often more pleasure for the consumer.
Burgess, G. H. O., et al. Fish Handling and Processing. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1965.
Cutting, C. L. Fish Saving. London: Leonard Hill, 1955.
Goode, G. Brown, and Associates. The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884-1887.
Shephard, Sue. Pickled, Potted and Canned: The History of Food Preservation. London: Headline, 2000.
Zaitsev, V., et al. Fish Curing and Processing. Translated by A. de Merendol. Moscow: Mir Publishers, 1969.
Since haddock does not take salt as well as cod, the traditional ways of curing haddock were by drying and smoking. In the category of smoked haddock the most famous have been what was originally a product of the fishing village of Findon, near Aberdeen in Scotland. Peat was used as the source of heat and smoke, and the haddocks, when sold, proudly bore the name Finnan haddocks or Finnan haddies. The taste spread to France where the product became so popular that in French the term "haddock" means 'smoked haddock', one significant instance of an English word invading the French language (which does of course possess its own word for fresh haddock, églefin ). The taste also spread to the United States in the nineteenth century, witness the statement by G. Brown Goode and his associates (see bibliography) that smoked haddock were even then being manufactured in large quantities in Portland and Boston. It is interesting that Goode called them Finland haddocks, perhaps reflecting a misunderstanding of the true name by the American manufacturers.
The production of Finnan haddocks or the like no longer involves the use of peat and is carried out in many places. However, the essential process still involves the traditional stages. The fish, cleaned and split open, are left in brine for a while and then hung up to drain. As the surface dries, it develops an attractive gloss. Smoking comes next and is normally continued until the fish have taken on a straw color (which will darken further after the fish have been taken out of the smoking plant). Small haddock which have been treated in this way but withdrawn from the smoking process while their color is a very pale straw are known as Glasgow pales. This light coloration is at the opposite extreme from the lurid yellow hue often imparted artificially to the fish by large-scale commercial smokers.
Hot smoking is used for what are called Arbroath smokies. Arbroath is the Scottish town where their production became a local industry.