If it doesn't move, smoke it

Butter, salt, mushrooms, even crocodile, have joined familiar kippers and mackerel in the smokery. Michael Bateman reports

They sent him two 56lb bags of potatoes and asked him to smoke them. Only joking. But Hugh Forestier-Walker did not notice the date was April 1, and duly obliged. April Fool! How the chefs hooted with laughter.

Hugh F-W runs the much-respected Minola Smokery in Lechlade, Gloucester, where he is renowned for smoking anything under the sun, and not just fish and shellfish, meat, poultry, cheese. "He'll smoke anything, even socks," laughs a fond customer, chef Chris Fisher, who perpetrated the joke. "Take along your granny and he'll smoke her," adds writer George Dorgan. Chris nods: "And her handbag, and her white shoes."

Mr Forestier-Walker is under discussion as we are holding a smokathon at The Abingdon in Kensington, where chef Brian Baker is one of many modern chefs who like to slip a little smoky something onto the menu. He has been joined by smokoholic Chris Fisher from the Edgewarebury in Elstree, Herts, and food scribe George Dorkin who has assembled Simply Smoked (Grub Street pounds 5.99), a book of recipes from chefs who've been exploring new ways with one of the world's oldest foods.

Smoke gets in your eyes, does it not, summoning up rosy memories of food gone by. Arbroath smokies, smoked salmon, smoked eel, kippered herring are jewels in the crown of the traditional and very British craft of smoking food. But it is surely ironic that these foods which were once necessities are becoming high-priced luxuries (a pair of smoked herring from Inverawe for pounds 4.50; smoked venison marinated in port, pounds 17 per lb).

Until recently, for most of our food history, smoking has been no more than an aid to preservation. In the days before canning, chilling and freezing, it was an invaluable aid to salting and drying, inhibiting the spread of bacteria. Indeed an antiseptic coating of light wood tar provided an extra seal, and longer keeping qualities.

But to what extent these foods were prized for flavour is debatable. There is no call today for the red herring, fish which smoked for weeks till it became as brittle as kindling for the fire. Or Yarmouth bloaters, leathery sponges which have soaked up their weight in salt (enjoyed in olden times pounded into a paste to spread on toast).

And, anyway, what kind of a delicacy was smoked salmon a century ago? E S Dallas, author of Kettner's Book of the Table, writing in 1877, reported that the smoked salmon which reached London was "so well kippered that few can afford to eat more than a very thin slice of it, grilled with exceeding swiftness."

Yet, now there is no call for smoking as a preservative, boutique smokeries are enjoying cult status. And they are offering increasingly esoteric products. It started modestly enough with mussels, oysters, prawns and clams, moved on to chicken, turkey, goose, quail, and eventually quails' eggs. Then to cheese of every sort. Now they embrace bizarre imports, crocodile tail and ostrich steaks. Not to mention mushrooms, garlic, nuts. Salt, yes, smoked salt.

One of the most unlikely new products is smoked butter. (Doesn't it melt when you smoke it? Not if it's cold smoked.) It was swiftly snapped up by the innovative restaurant entrepreneur Antony Worrall-Thompson to make a smoked butter hollandaise (one part smoked butter to two parts unsmoked). Chris Fisher is developing a brioche made with smoked butter to serve with goats' cheese.

Many smoked foods made tasty (and easy) first courses. Most of the work has been done by the smoker. There's little waste. Smoked salmon has a degree of delicacy that never fails to appeal. One of Albert Roux's outstanding first courses is a pillow of smoked salmon wrapped round a creamy mousse made from the trimmings. Smoked salmon stirred into a creamy egg mixture makes a delicious filling for quiche or tartlets.

Smoked haddock, with its robuster flavour, lends itself to piping hot broths, such as the sublime Cullen Skink, the milk and potatoes drawing out the saltiness. And kedgeree remains one of the great brunch dishes, a happy blend of flaked smoked haddock, moistened with the milk it's cooked in, flavoured with curry, blended with rice and egg.

But it's time to move on, suggests George Dorkin, given the mushrooming increase in smoked products. Hence this collection of new recipes. George Dorkin is a former New York Post reporter who came to England to help a friend run a restaurant and now writes about food and wine.

He has sourced some 50-odd recipes (matching them with wine) by the simple process of approaching several dozen of the top smokeries and asking who their best customers were: chefs such as Brian Baker and Chris Fisher who kindly prepared some of their dishes for us. We kicked off with Chris's smoked pork terrine, a twist on jambon persille, using smoked collar, hock and gammon. Chris has simmered chunks with a pig's trotter and ham bones, cut the pieces into long strips (the art of making a terrine is laying the pieces lengthwise). He served it with salad leaves and home- made chutney and piccalilli. George chose a German red, a Dornfelder from Freddy Price.

Then we had Brian's haddock fishcakes, very easy to make, served elegantly with a pale green salad of diced avocado. With them a Sauvignon Blanc.

Then Chris served a savoury dish of smoked New Zealand green mussels (actually a brilliant orange) in puff pastry with a cumin butter sauce sharpened with a little lemon grass and coconut milk. (He spent three years working in the Middle East). George produced a zingy rose Moet and Chandon, 1990, which cut into the buttery sauce.

And finally Brian prepared a bowl of linguine and moist shredded smoked chicken, tingling with red hot chillies (which he crumbles into oil and marinates for a few days). This a family favourite at home, he says, quick to make, and it puts smoked chicken in a new light. The succulence is due to the fact that he buys the whole chicken, not the breasts alone. Brian offered a Valpolicella. A Cotes du Rhone would have also gone well.

Below we reprint some of Brian and Chris's recipes.

LINGUINI WITH SMOKED CHICKEN AND ARTICHOKES

Serves 8

1 whole smoked chicken

2 small tins baby artichokes

1 sprig thyme

1 sprig sage

1 sprig parsley

4 cloves garlic

2-4 dried chillies

300ml/1/2 pint olive oil

2 x 500g/1lb packets linguini

Remove meat from the chicken carcass, discarding the fat and skin. Shred the meat into small pieces.

Drain the artichokes, rinse them, drain again and cut into quarters.

Remove the stalks from the herbs and chop their leaves finely.

Put the garlic, chillies and a small amount of olive oil into a blender and blend until smooth. Then add the remaining olive oil and store the mixture in a large jar .

Cook the linguini in abundant boiling, salted water with a bit of oil in it to keep the pasta from sticking.

Meanwhile, put a ladle of the garlic and chilli oil in a pan and add the quarters of artichokes, smoked chicken and herbs and heat through.

Drain the linguini, saving a cupful of the cooking water in case the pasta needs a bit of moistening.

Toss the artichoke and chicken mixture with the linguini, reserving a bit of chicken and artichoke to put on top of each portion as a garnish. Season to taste, and serve with fresh grated Parmesan cheese on the top.

SMOKED HADDOCK FISH CAKES WITH AVOCADO SALAD

Serves 4-6

1kg/2lb smoked haddock

600ml/1 pint milk

1 bay leaf

2 cloves garlic

generous amounts of chopped flat parsley

500g/1lb dry mashed potato (no milk or butter)

fine breadcrumbs

oil, for frying

For the avocado salad:

1-2 avocados

juice of 1-2 lemons

250ml/8fl oz olive oil

generous bunch of chervil

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

salt and pepper

Skin the haddock and remove as many of the bones as possible. Poach the fish in milk with a bay leaf for about 20 minutes, but do not overcook.

Remove from the heat and allow it to cool. Drain and flake. Mix with garlic, parsley and mashed potato but do not overmix. Season to taste, shape into 12 cakes and coat with the breadcrumbs. Shallow fry the fish cakes in hot oil.

For the avocado salad, peel, stone and chop avocado into cubes. Mix with lemon juice, olive oil, chopped chervil.

Serve with boiled new potatoes.

PASTRY PUFF OF SMOKED MUSSELS WITH CUMIN

Serves 4

125g/4oz clarified butter

125g/4oz chopped onions

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1 teaspoon cumin

150ml/1/4 pint white wine

150ml/1/4 pint fish stock

75ml/3fl oz double cream

125g/4oz puff pastry

500g/1lb washed and chopped large leaf spinach

nutmeg

salt and pepper

16 hot-smoked New Zealand green-lipped mussels

75g/3oz cold butter, cubed

In a hot pan, sweat half the onions and all the garlic in half the clarified butter, covered so that it does not colour. Add cumin, stir and add wine. Reduce and add fish stock. Reduce, add double cream and pass through a sieve. Keep warm till needed.

Meanwhile, roll out the puff pastry and cut into four 7.5cm/3in discs. Bake for five to seven minutes in an oven preheated to 350F/180C/Gas 4 and allow to cool. With the point of a sharp knife inserted between the layers, gently prise each apart into two discs.

Fry the spinach and remaining onion in remaining clarified butter for less than a minute, adding grated nutmeg, salt and freshly ground pepper.

Heat the mussels under a grill which has been brushed with a little butter. Carefully spoon the spinach on to the bottom discs, arrange four mussels on top "falling" from each puff. Finish sauce by whisking in cold cubed butter. Pour a small amount over the mussels and the rest around the puffs. Place lid askew on top and serve.

! The Abingdon, London W8 (0171 937 3339); The Edgwarebury, Elstree (0181 953 8227). Minola Smoked Products, Kencot Hill Farmhouse, Filkins, Lechlade, Gloucestershire GL7 3QY (01367 860391).

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