It's Will White's amazing trick. He opens the door and whoosh! – out billows a dense cloud of aromatic smoke. It subsides to reveal eels suspended as if in mid-air, their dark, coppery skins glowing in the heat, bellies slit from head to tail. Will, 25, is not special effects man on Harry Potter, but there is definitely a medieval touch to his craft. He is master smoker at Brown and Forrest in deepest Somerset; the eels are hanging from racks over beech and apple logs in a brick smokehouse about the size of an old privy. They will be filleted and served fresh on rye bread at the restaurant on site, vacuum packed and sold in the shop, or to customers all over the world (01458 251520). That such primeval-looking beasts could provide such delicate morsels is hard to imagine, yet in the right hands, they do – firm and succulent, yet meltingly silky and hinting at what Will's boss Michael Brown describes as "that wonderful marriage of salt and smoke". "Hint" is the key word – if you've ever found smoked bacon, for example, unbearably salty and smoky, it's simply been exposed to too much of both.
A former local eel-catcher, Brown started smoking to help make ends meet. Now he runs a thriving small business, smoking not only eel caught locally in the Test, Avon and its feeder streams, but trout from Devon, locally produced cheese, lamb and chickens, salmon from a trusted Scottish farm and wafer-thin slices of French Barbary duck breast. He learned his craft in Germany, and describes castles where hams were once hung up the kitchen chimney and inspected via specially built doors in the back on the first floor, until they were smoky black on the outside and meltingly pink inside – ancestors of today's Black Forest ham.
A newcomer to the smoking scene, Ed Found of Wyndham Foods (01308 420307) is a former fisherman and sailing instructor based in Dorset, who also needed to keep the wolf from the door during periods of bad weather. He built a smoker in a wooden box in his outside loo and started experimenting. Now he has converted an old barn and smokes the catch from Lyme Bay, as well as locally reared venison and wild boar.Hot and cold
Both Brown and Found use centuries-old techniques. But the tradition may go back as far as cave dwellers, who realised that the smoke from their fires gave the meat hanging to dry inside a better flavour and, importantly for their survival, what we would call a longer shelf-life. Despite the advent of commercially-manufactured smokers, the process hasn't changed much. Raw food is first "cured" by rubbing salt into the flesh (that's what dry cure means), or brined in a solution of salt water for minutes or hours, depending on the size and texture of the raw material. The salt draws out moisture, which aids the smoking/drying process, as well as killing off bugs. These days the brine may be spiked with all manner of closely guarded, secret spice and liquor recipes.
The food is then cold or hot smoked. Cold smoking is done over glowing hardwood embers or sawdust, at about 20-25C, for several hours. Salmon and foods such as cheese and garlic, which don't need proper cooking, are smoked this way. Hot smoking (or roast smoking) is for larger, more robust cuts, which are suspended over a log fire reaching 90-100C. The fire is then "shut down" and the cooked food left to smoke for about one and a half hours. Variations on this idea include hot-smoked salmon.Home-fire tending
Smoked fish is rich, intense and needs only a squeeze of lemon, brown bread and butter, boiled potatoes and some piquantly dressed leaves to accompany it. The same could be said of all smoked produce. Lightly pickled vegetables are a tangy foil, as is horseradish mixed with yoghurt or sour cream. George Dorgan, in his book Simply Smoked (Grub Street, £5.99), offers recipes for some interesting variations on a basic theme. Try the smoked fish salad or smoked mackerel kedgeree. In Cook at Home with Peter Gordon (Hodder & Stoughton, £25), the Kiwi chef describes how to smoke fish over tea and rice in a roasting tin over a gentle flame.Eastenders
There has always been a tradition of smoking fish in Scotland – think of kippers, haddock and Arbroath smokies. But the Scots didn't necessarily invent smoked salmon as we know it. Jews fleeing the pogroms of late 19th-century Eastern Europe and Russia brought their more subtly flavoured smoked salmon to London. Baltic fish, salted and brought over in barrels, was smoked in home-built brick contraptions in back yards.
Then they discovered the superior wild Scottish salmon at Billingsgate. A community industry grew up, until there were 15 salmon smokers in the East End. The last surviving is H Forman (020-8985 0378), although their kilns are now commercially manufactured. The others failed to compete with the subsidised salmon farmers in Scotland and Norway, whose often flabby, greasy fish, industrially smoked in vast electric kilns, would have Harris Forman turning in his grave. Heaven knows what he would have thought of injecting the raw material with brine to keep the weight up, or of spray-on liquid smoke. Lance Forman, Harris's great grandson, prides himself on the freshness of their "London cure", simply salted and then gently smoked overnight, to be delivered to London's top hotels in time for breakfast.Outdoor fending
If you really want to reach your inner caveman, hook up with three guys in the US who have done just that. Grant, Kevin and Scott met at barbecue school in San Diego (only in California...), and can think of no better way of spending a Sunday than cooking big animals, barbecueing, making sausage and jerky or smoking fish.
To find out more – even if it's just their selection of recipes for smoked food – check out their website: www.3men.com. Alternatively, you could don your anorak and peruse Home Smoking and Curing by Keith Erlandson (Ebury Press, £7.99).
Those who want to get back to the basics of smoking the fish that they've caught (or at least, doing their own smoking of freshly caught fish) can invest in a home smoker. One version made by Brooks consists of a bottomless metal box, in which the food is placed on a rack over sawdust, before a saucer of methylated spirit is lit underneath. These smokers can be bought in angling shops, or off the internet – try www.bosfish.co.uk and click on game fishing in the products section. They cost from about £40.Smoke by post
www.foodloversbritain.com has links to Brown and Forrest and Wyndham Foods, as well as to many other traditional smokeries around the British Isles. With its in-built preservation, extended by modern refrigeration and vacuum packing, smoked food is perfect for mail order.
Award-winning smokeries: Bleikers Smokehouse Ltd (01423 71141) – English beef bresaola, marinated in ale; Denhay Farms (01308 458963) – bacon, sausages; Dunkeld Smoked Salmon (01350 727639) – wild smoked salmon; Inverawe Smokehouses (01866 822 777) – hot-roast salmon, smoked salmon terrine; FW Read & Sons (01507 466987) – Lincolnshire Poacher cheese; The Weald Smokery (01580 879601) – trout, eel, smoked Scottish salmon.
Experiments have shown that the carcinogens in wood smoke would have to be consumed in quantities far beyond even the greediest smokie to cause stomach cancers. Those conscious of their salt intake should bear in mind that it almost always features in smoked food.