All the right signals

Smoking doesn't have to be anti-social. Mark Hix has ways to feed your cravings
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Smoked salmon used to be a magnificent thing. When I first came to London and worked in hotels, whole sides of the beautiful fish would arrive carefully wrapped in paper and be handed straight to someone with authority. Nobody was allowed near it unless they had a steady carving hand and plenty of experience.

Smoked salmon used to be a magnificent thing. When I first came to London and worked in hotels, whole sides of the beautiful fish would arrive carefully wrapped in paper and be handed straight to someone with authority. Nobody was allowed near it unless they had a steady carving hand and plenty of experience.

These days, more often than not, the poor old salmon is smoked electronically and then sliced up and shoved into vacuum packs. No more crusty sides of salmon that need a good old trim before they are sliced. Industrial quantities of smoke are used to disguise the fact that these farmed fish have no taste or character. In fact, their only feature is that they're fatty. When you unwrap those oily packs with the slices separated by slithery plastic sheets, you're generally in for a disappointment. I know salmon has become more affordable but along the way it's lost all the magic.

Traditionally, smoking was done in wood-fired kilns operated by humans, but that art has been replaced by computerised factory smokeries. The original method is a dying trade that only seems to exist in remote parts of Scotland and Ireland. I'm sorry to spoil anyone's enjoyment of bargain smoked salmon but you won't keep me quiet on the subject. The other day I had to do one of those blind taste tests, trying out the same food from different places. I opened about seven vacuum packets of smoked salmon which had come from reputable suppliers as well as cheapo shops. Even the most expensive failed miserably. The minute I opened the packet I knew I didn't want to eat it. Even mackerel, which is so oily it can easily withstand smoking, can be dry and nasty when it's in vacuum packs. Try buying it unwrapped from a fishmonger; it's a completely different, succulent kettle of fish.

There was a fad a few years ago to smoke everything - not just the things that moved: vegetables, cheese, eggs, you name it, they were all exposed to bellows of oaky smoke up a chimney somewhere on an industrial estate. In the wrong hands smoke can completely ruin delicate foods like mussels and scallops.

But I'm not anti-smoking. It transforms some oily fish and seafood and makes them even more luxurious. My favourite smoked treats are eel and cod roe. You have to dig deep into the pocket to pay for them and it's important to find good-quality ones but they're worth it. Try to buy smoked eel on the bone before it's filleted and wrapped in plastic. The difference is unbelievable. Best of all, to keep the tradition going, buy direct from a smokery. There are good ones that deliver. Try these: Dartmouth Smokehouse (01803 833123 or, Forman and Field (020-8221 3939 or, Brown and Forrest (01458 250875 or and Severn on Wye Smokery (01452 760192).

Smoked mackerel salad with poached egg

Serves 4

Most of the smoked mackerel I've tried seems to be fine - as long as it's not vac packed. It's a much safer bet than smoked salmon, and it's a healthy fish, too. Mackerel is so oily it can take a severe smoking.

2 smoked mackerel fillets
1 small head of frisée lettuce (about 120- 150g), trimmed, washed and broken into bite-size pieces
4 spring onions, finely chopped
4 medium eggs

for the dressing

1tbsp good-quality tarragon vinegar
2tsp Dijon mustard
1tsp grated horseradish or creamed horseradish if you haven't any fresh
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First, make the dressing. Put all the ingredients into a clean bottle or jar. Give them a good shake and leave to infuse, preferably overnight, at room temperature.

Flake the mackerel away from the skin in nice chunks, ensuring there are no bones. Poach the eggs until the white is firm but the yolk still runny. Drain on kitchen paper. Meanwhile dress the frisée with two thirds of the dressing and season. Fold in the chopped spring onion and mackerel and arrange on plates. Place the poached egg in the middle of the leaves and drizzle over some more dressing. Add some croûtons, fried in olive oil, if you like.

Fried duck eggs with smoked bacon and chanterelles

Serves 4

This is a perfect breakfast treat. You won't need lunch afterwards, either. Chanterelles are plentiful now and their delicate but earthy flavour complements the bacon and eggs perfectly. Either keep it pure and simple, or if you need starch with this, slide the egg on to a slice of toasted brioche or bread.

150g chanterelles or other wild mushrooms
60g butter
4 duck eggs
Olive oil
1tbsp chopped parsley
12 very thin slices of smoked streaky bacon or pancetta

If you're doing this many, it helps to have two pans. If you're using chanterelles, they take less long to cook than the eggs, so first heat a little olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and crack in the duck eggs one at a time. Cook the eggs on a low heat for 2-3 minutes - or longer, if the idea of those overwhelmingly large yolks makes you feel squeamish. If you have ceps, then start cooking them before the eggs. Melt the butter in a heavy, or non-stick, frying pan, add the mushrooms, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and gently sauté them on a medium heat for a couple of minutes for chanterelles, or a bit longer for other, meatier, mushrooms. Add the parsley, remove from the heat and keep warm in the pan.

At the same time cook the bacon under a hot grill until crisp. Remove the eggs with a fish slice, or slide them out straight on to plates and spoon the mushrooms around them, arranging the bacon on top.

Beetroot salad with smoked anchovies

Serves 4

Smoked anchovies are quite rare, quite delicious and very expensive. The Narden brand from Spain is sold by Brindisa in Borough Market, London SE1, or the shop in Exmouth Market, London EC1 (020-7407 1036, and other delis such as Rick Stein's in Padstow. They come in a can and have a short shelf-life, but taste as if freshly smoked. If you are struggling to find them, this recipe will work with good-quality canned or marinaded anchovies but of course you won't get the smoky quality. You could also try smoked mackerel or eel.

1 can of smoked anchovies, drained
500g fresh beetroot

for the dressing

2 shallots, finely chopped
1tbsp chopped chives
1/2tbsp white wine vinegar
3tbsp olive oil

Boil the beetroot (in its skin) in lightly salted water until just tender. Peel it while warm, cut into 5mm slices and lay them on plates or a serving dish. To make the dressing, mix together the ingredients, along with some seasoning, and spoon it over the beetroot. Arrange the anchovies on top.

Onion soup with smoked garlic toasts

Serves 4

Smoked garlic started off as a novelty at food fairs but by now you've probably seen the golden-brown bulbs in supermarkets, greengrocers and delicatessens, and wondered what you're supposed to do with them. Me too. They smell delicious and for a long time I'd buy them for the hell of it, but I always used to end up bunging them out a month later.

In fact you can do with them whatever you'd normally do with unsmoked garlic. Try dropping a clove into lamb or poultry gravy at the last minute or just bake and serve a whole bulb halved with, say, a Barnsley chop. Next I'm going to try mixing them with butter for a smoky chicken Kiev.

4 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1tbsp vegetable or corn oil
1tsp brown sugar
A good knob of butter
1tsp chopped thyme leaves
2tsp flour
1/2tsp tomato purée
60ml red wine
2 litres hot beef stock (good quality stock cubes will do)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the smoked garlic toasts

4 slices of good quality crusty bread
A generous amount of butter, softened
1 bulb of smoked garlic
1tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

In a thick-bottomed saucepan gently cook the onions in the vegetable oil with a lid on for 4-5 minutes until soft, stirring every so often. Remove the lid, turn the heat up and add the sugar and butter. Continue cooking and stirring for another 5 minutes or so until the onions are a golden brown. Add the thyme, flour and tomato purée and stir on a low heat for another couple of minutes. Gradually add the red wine and beef stock, stirring to avoid lumps forming. Lightly season and simmer very gently for 1 hour, skimming occasionally.

Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 200°C/ gas mark 6. Wrap the garlic in foil and bake for 45-50 minutes. Remove from the oven, cut the bulb in half and scoop out the flesh of the garlic with a teaspoon. Mix it with the softened butter and Parmesan in a bowl. Toast the bread on both sides under a hot grill then spread it with the garlic mixture. Serve the toasts separately or floating on the hot soup.

'Fish Etc' by Mark Hix with photographs by Jason Lowe, is published by Quadrille, £18.99