In the 1930s nearly 80 smoke-houses lined the Lincolnshire coast around Grimsby. In their tall brick chimneys, freshly caught haddock and cod fillets were gently smoked over smouldering sawdust before being distributed across Britain to go into national favourites such as fishcakes and kedgeree.
Back then Grimsby was the world's busiest fishing port and its traditionally smoked fish was a source of local pride and countrywide enjoyment. But as Britain's fishing industry declined and technology improved – notably the invention of electric kilns in the 1940s – many smokeries shut down, no longer able to compete in price or quantity.
There are now just five working smokeries in Grimsby mostly run by generations-old family firms. These owners refused to bow to modernisation and instead honoured the old traditions, saying they valued the superior taste of properly smoked fish over the convenience of electric kilns.
Finally their commitment has paid off. After a 10-year campaign, "traditional Grimsby smoked fish" has been awarded the same European Union status as champagne and Parma ham. The Protected Geographical Indication award means that only fish smoked in the north-east Lincolnshire town can bear the name. The new status means the fish may sell for up to £15 a kg compared to up to £9 for kiln-smoked fish.
It is a wonderful endorsement of one of Britain's culinary triumphs, which is finally gaining much-deserved recognition. "We're over the moon," says Steve Norton, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Merchants' Association. "This cachet is just the start. It lets the world know our smoked fish is the best. It's a niche food that is made traditionally. It's the opposite of mass-produced fast food."
Most foodies agree. Grimsby smoked fish is served in many of the country's finest eateries, including J Sheekey, Scott's and even Delia Smith's Norwich City Football Club's restaurant. Regular supplies are sent to the Royal household. Legend has it that the Queen ate it for breakfast the morning after her 1947 marriage to Prince Philip. A royal seal of approval if ever there was one.
Mat Follas, 2009's MasterChef winner and owner of the Wild Garlic Restaurant in Beaminster, loves it. He says: "If you're going to eat smoked fish, get it from Grimsby. It's cold smoked and there's a real art to it. The smokers there are amongst the best in the country."
Once traditionally made smoked fish was commonplace, now it has to be sought out. That is all set to change. The Grimsby Traditional Fish Smokers Group, which represents the companies who have been awarded the EU status, is mounting a campaign to boost the fish's profile. Although production is too small to supply retail giants like Tesco, they plan to increase distribution to delicatessens and specialist food shops. Waitrose already stock it.
Most people have only eaten kiln-smoked fish. Comparing the two is like saying an artisan-produced pungent Cheddar from the farmers' market is the same as a mass-made, shrink-wrapped cheese from the corner shop.
Jeremy Ryland-Langley, a fish buyer for Waitrose, agrees. He says: "With modern-day kilns you just don't get that depth of flavour. With traditional fish, it's like eating something completely different. The real thing is amazing. Unbeatable. Smoky. Rich. Perfect."
As the sun rises over the Humber Estuary, curls of white smoke from the chimneys disappear into the cold grey Lincolnshire sky. Overnight hundreds of fish fillets have been smoked over gently glowing sawdust and wood chips. Come morning they are ready.
Atkinsons is one of the fish-smokers in Grimsby. Frank Atkinson started it in 1932 with £25 he won on the horses. His grandson David runs it. Although the outbuildings have been revamped to comply with EU food regulations, the chimney hasn't changed since 1904.
This is the key to good smoked fish, believes David. "The chimneys have never been cleaned so you're tasting 100 years of smoke. The walls are lined with a bubbly black tar and it adds to the depth of flavour."
He buys fish – mostly haddock, some cod – from the market every morning, preferably line-caught. His catch is then driven back to the smokehouse (in the old days there was a train line that delivered it from the docks to his door) where it is hand-filleted by Grimsby's fastest filleter, David Mackie. He can fillet a fish in a record 30 seconds, a feat that earns him £30,000 a year. If you or I were to try, it would take a good half an hour and may cost a finger.
The fillets are then dipped in a top-secret-formula brine and hung to drain in rows on speats, which are like metal washing lines. When finished it looks like a fish laundry. The chimneys are 10m high and 2m wide and the speats have to be hung by hand. This means that some poor soul has to climb a ladder and then walk across an 8ft beam to secure each one – a dangerous job that appears utterly Dickensian.
The fish is smoked overnight. At the bottom of each chimney – there are 16 in all – is a shallow pit containing sawdust from beech trees. When this is lit, the air fills with a light, almost pleasant smoke. There are openings at the top and the bottom to allow a draught of cool fresh sea air to mingle with the smoke. After 12 to 14 hours the fish is removed, cooled and packed.
Rick Stein, a champion of regional cooking, says: "I've visited Grimsby and was amazed at the skill involved in traditional fish smoking. It's worlds apart from computer-controlled kiln drying."
Electric kilns can smoke up to four batches a day but David says flavour is sacrificed for speed: "They are not smoked long enough. Traditional smoking can only produce one batch a day, so there's no reason to rush and that is why our product is the best."
This painstaking effort and adherence to traditional methods earned the fish its EU status. Steve Norton says: "The award wasn't just about the superior product, but about valuing and protecting regional food. In the heyday of the prewar period there were dozens of smokehouses, now there are a handful. This protects the heritage."
The EU award has been given to 39 British products but Food Minister Jim Fitzpatrick believes many more deserve it. He says: "Ultimately, we should be alongside France and Italy who between them boast more than 300 protected foods – our food is as good, if not better than any other European country's. We want to see the UK's regional foods on the world map."
It also reinforces Grimsby's long-established ties with the fishing industry and there is hope that it will boost the town's fortunes. Grimsby is aptly named. Looking at its semi-derelict docks, it is hard to believe that this was once the world's busiest fishing port.
Strict EU quotas and the Cod Wars of the 1970s meant Britain lost many of its deep-sea fishing rights and the industry has been in decline ever since. Although it is still the country's largest processing centre – the fish finger capital of Britain – there is no fleet here any more. At every corner there is a ghost of the fishing industry past: boarded up ship rigging shops, a derelict icehouse and a general air of decline.
But there is good news. In November Grimsby's first fishing boat for 12 years was launched. The £1m Jubilee Quest will fish North Sea waters from the Norwegian coast to the Thames Estuary and create six fishing jobs, as well as supporting up to 15 jobs on shore. Andrew Allard, its owner, says: "It is a substantial investment. It is a show of faith in the fishing industry."
Lee Bennett, the executive chef at Pont de la Tour, thinks that its increasing popularity is linked to the recession. He says, "At times of national crisis people want old-fashioned, comforting food; reassurance and tradition."
It is one of the most popular dishes at Colin McGurran's restaurant, Winteringham Fields in Lincolnshire. The Michelin-trained chef says, "Grimsby smoked fish is so versatile and has a really good flavour. I serve it with scrambled eggs, baked with tempura oysters or with foie gras in summer salads."
Jeremy Ryland-Langley grew up eating it and likes it poached in water, milk with a knob of butter. Although, rather controversially, he says it is fantastic microwaved briefly. Mat Follas prefers it served simply and has even made sushi with it. The final word on eating it should go to David Atkinson, who favours the pure and simple approach. He says: "Poach it in milk and when it is almost cooked, crack an egg into the mixture, then serve it with the softly-poached egg on top and eat it with bread and butter. It's idyllic. My last supper."
TASTE THE DIFFERENCE: TRADITIONAL SMOKED HADDOCK RECIPES
Ingredients to serve 4-6:
850g traditional smoked haddock fillets
1 onion, finely chopped
¾ level tsp hot curry powder
Half level tsp turmeric
Long-grain white rice measured up to the 270ml level in a measuring jug
5 medium, organic hard-boiled eggs
4 heaped tblsp fresh chopped parsley
1 tblsp fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
650ml cold water
In a saucepan, cover the haddock fillets with the cold water. Once brought to the boil, lower the temperature and simmer gently. After 8 minutes, drain the water into a measuring jug and set aside. Place the haddock in a dish, covered with foil to keep it warm.
Melt half of the butter in a saucepan and add the onion. After 5 minutes, stir in the curry powder and the turmeric. Cook the onion, butter and curry powder for half a minute, then stir in the rice and while stirring, add 550ml of the haddock water. When it begins to simmer, place a lid on the saucepan and cook on a low heat for 15-20 minutes, until the rice softens.
While the rice is cooking, firstly, chop the boiled eggs. After 10 minutes, remove the skins from the fish and flake the fish in its bowl. When the rice is tender, remove it from the heat and drain. Add the fish, eggs, parsley, lemon juice and the rest of the butter. Ensure the mixture is evenly distributed then put a lid on the pan and return to a gentle heat for 5-10 minutes. Season and serve immediately with your choice of accompaniment. A salad or baby spinach works well.
Haddock with poached eggs
Ingredients to serve 4:
750g traditional smoked haddock fillets (cut into four pieces)
75g unsalted butter
4 medium organic hard-boiled eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
400ml whole milk
Place the haddock fillets in a frying pan; add a knob of the butter, some black pepper and the milk. Bring to the boil, place a lid on the pan and gently simmer for around 8-10 minutes, or until the haddock is just cooked. Remove from the heat and keep the pan covered to keep warm.
Bring a pan of slightly salted water to the boil, using a spoon to stir the water and create a whirlpool, crack an egg into the centre. Simmer for 3 minutes and then remove with a slotted spoon to drain any excess water off. Place the egg to one side and repeat the process for each of the remaining eggs.
Place a piece of haddock onto four warmed plates and top with a poached egg. Season to taste and serve immediately. Serve with mashed potato for a heartier meal.
Haddock with a herb crust
Ingredients to serve 4:
600g traditional smoked haddock fillets (cut into four pieces)
1 tblsp olive oil
400g cherry tomatoes
3 tblsp organic mayonnaise
1 crushed garlic clove
100g white breadcrumbs
2 handfuls of fresh, flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 220C or gas mark 7. Lightly oil a large baking tray and lay the haddock and cherry tomatoes alongside each other, leaving space between each piece of fish. In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise and the crushed garlic then spread the mixture evenly over the fish.
Roughly chop the parsley and add this to a bowl along with the breadcrumbs and the juice and zest from the lemon. Toss the mixture and season to taste with the salt and pepper. Evenly top each piece of fish with the mixture.
Finally, drizzle olive oil over the fish and tomatoes and bake in the oven for around 15 minutes or until the crust is golden and crunchy.