Smoking food: Smouldering passion

Since taking up smoking, Christopher Hirst has found that not just salmon and mackerel but oysters, chicken and even eggs can be given a delicious new dimension

It was something of a surprise when I discovered I'd made one of the world's great delicacies. Silky in texture, it dazzled the palate with a complex combination of sweet and savoury. The aftertaste lingered on for minutes. "It's almost like ... " I mused to my wife.

"Foie gras," she said, completing my thought for me.

Herring roe is a first-rate snack when fried in butter and served on toast, but hot-smoked, the soft beige roes are transformed into a food that is richly luxurious. Like foie gras, you wouldn't want very much. To say I invented it would be going too far. Smoked herring roe was recommended by my friend Janice, the owner of Lovitt's fishmongers in Filey, North Yorkshire. She also sent me in the direction of smoked oysters, which proved equally distinctive. Hot smoking for five minutes "set" the meat of the oysters and concentrated their salinity while retaining a creamy sweetness.

Smoking food at home is an adventure. You're never quite sure what will emerge. After smoking a variety of foods, our outstanding triumphs were curiously disparate: pigeon breasts, octopus and almonds. For some reason, the hot smoke produced a magical reaction, subtle and addictive, with this unlikely trio. It also worked well with more predictable partners such as Atlantic prawns, chicken breast and sea trout. We had one downright failure. Watery and acrid, our smoked tomatoes went in the bin.

People have been undertaking similar experiments as long as they have been cooking. The smoke rising from the perpetual cave fires of our distant ancestors not only preserved the hunters' haul but also gave the food a pleasing flavour. More than 200 components have been detected in wood smoke, which impart favours ranging from vanilla to clove and aromas likened to coconut, apple and peach.

The Sumerians were smoking fish (always a favourite for this process) in 3500BC. The Greeks and Romans relished smoked tuna and cheese. (The latter was an ancestor of the modern Roman smoked cheese called caciocavello.) Dated to 2000BC, the remains of a smokehouse have been found on the River Bann in Ireland. In China, the transformative effect of smoke was applied to items as varied as tea and apricots.

Smoked food is found pretty much wherever there are humans. A mainstay of Ghanaian cuisine is bonga, a fish like a shad, smoke-roasted to blackness over smouldering wood shavings in a large oil drum. Around the Baltic, buckling, which are whole herrings hot smoked at 82-93C, were a staple farm of medieval peasants. The British came to prefer cold smoking at around 26C, a process known as "kippering" when applied to salmon.

The term acquired its modern meaning when it was borrowed for the split, cold-smoked herrings invented by Northumbrian curer John Woodger as recently as 1843. The area retains its association with this juicy treat. The smokehouses of Craster, Northumberland, have been smoking kippers for 130 years, while Fortune's of Whitby have been puffing since 1873. Every time I buy kippers from this picturesque establishment with its ancient shop and tarred smoking shed, it occurs to me that Count Dracula, Whitby's most celebrated visitor, would probably have made landfall in an atmosphere perfumed with kipper smoke.

According to Keith Erlandson, author of the classic Home Smoking and Curing, it should be possible to reproduce Fortune's shed if you have "an old, disused stone or brick outside toilet". Sadly lacking this facility, I tried a small indoor smoker heated by the kitchen hob and then a slightly larger outdoor smoker that used a spirit heater to produce smoke from sawdust. Both were effective, particularly for trout, prawns and chicken breasts, but I found myself returning to the produce of the professionals at Cley next the Sea in Norfolk and Orford, Suffolk. At one of the two competing outlets in Orford, Steve Richardson does some of Britain's best artisan smoking. Ranging from ham hocks and eels to game and cheese that has been cold smoked for six days and nights (beyond the capacity of amateur smokers), his output merits the two-hour detour if you're in London.

A conversation with The Independent's cookery writer Mark Hix prompted me to start smoking again. He recommended a Canadian smoker called the Bradley, which he uses to smoke salmon for his restaurants. "A bloody good machine," said Hix. "Really consistent and unique in what it does." The smoking takes place in a "smoke tower" about the same size as a small domestic fridge, but the clever part is the separate smoke generator, which heats circular bisquettes of pressed wood chippings (their texture resembles Weetabix) on a electric burner arm that enters the smoke tower through a hole in the side. Every 20 minutes, the bisquettes are automatically replaced. After ejection, the spent bisquettes are extinguished in a water-filled drip tray, which means they are never completely converted to ash. Bradley claims this prevents "tars and resins" that would taint the food. Available in nine different in nine different types of wood, bisquettes cost around £1 per hour of smoking.

The Bradley smoker emerged from the North American tradition of smoke-roasting. The food is not only smoked but also roasted by a heating element in a smoke tower. Much of the food cooked by this method is consumed while hot as an alternative barbecue. Bradley's recipes range from garlic lemon smoked leg of lamb to cherry-smoked bananas, though UK smokers may have trouble finding the ingredients for smoked moose heart or bear meat jerky. The recipe for this tough-as-old-boots nibble insists on "no water in the drip tray", so tars and resins must be a vital element in jerky.

Since the bisquettes are heated within the Bradley smoke tower, its cold smoking is slightly hot even when the tower element is turned off. This is no problem in North America, where cold smoking is virtually unknown. For his cold-smoked salmon, Mark Hix cooled the smoke by introducing a 2ft length of flexible galvanised ducting between the smoke generator and the oven. Evidently impressed by Hix's lash-up, Bradley introduced its own cold smoking adaptor consisting of a cooling chamber and, yes, a length of galvanised ducting.

In operation, the smoker emits a small waft of smoke, but this becomes a billowing genie when you open the door. One Bradley retailer claims: "Your neighbours will come flocking when you open the door and release all those wonderful smoky aromas." This is optimistic. Our Yorkshire neighbour genially remarked that our smoking made the garden "smell like Henrietta Street" (the location of Fortune's in Whitby). Hix's solution: "A little side of smoked salmon to the neighbours keeps them happy."

Even with the automated Bradley, smoking is less simple than you might expect. With a very few exceptions, such as nuts and cheese, a preliminary period of salting or brining is required for all smoked foods. After dry curing his sides of salmon in a mixture of 20 per cent molasses sugar and 80 per cent rock salt for 12 hours, Mark Hix smokes them with oak and apple wood bisquettes for six hours. He does 16 1kg sides of salmon at a time. Available from Hix restaurants or Selfridges' Food Hall, the results are excellent.

We had mixed results when we tried cold smoking sides of large sea trout caught in Filey Bay. This has been available in such profusion this summer that the price dropped to £6.99 per kilo. (I was told the big catches were due to the low level of rivers, which made spawning impossible.) Following a Bradley recipe, we brined the fish for two hours (1 litre water, 125g salt with maple syrup, rum and spices), then cold smoked for around six hours using maple bisquettes. The result was smoked trout – but not as we generally know it. The taste was fine but the texture was on the wet side. This may have been due to the fact that we didn't allow the fish to mature after smoking. Keith Erlandson, who favours brining rather than dry curing, recommends "at least 24 hours" maturing.

We had more success with hot smoking. Scallops emerged silky in texture and imbued with a subtle smokiness. Cod cheeks were a revelation – tasty nuggets of flesh that were excellent when cold. Large squid tubes also worked well, particularly when eaten with cold boiled potatoes dressed with olive oil. (Octopus would be better still in this Gallician classic, but use small frozen ones from southern Europe.) Mackerel fillets were sensational, delicate and sweet, but my oily, rather pungent buckling prompted my wife to suggest: "You should leave smoked herrings to the professionals."

Costing £279 (with an additional £77 for the cold smoking adaptor), the Bradley Smoker is highly recommended with certain provisos. Even the smallest four-rack Bradley smokes food in North American quantities. You have to really love smoked food and preferably own a shrink-wrap device for preserving the results. You also need space for it. Given the British climate, a small outside shed with wide doors and an electricity supply is an ideal location. There are a number of alternative smokers if space is at a premium. For indoor smoking, the Woodman stove-top smoker (£85) does an excellent job. The Nordicware Kettle Smoker sold by Lakeland (£65) is also intended for the hob and can be used outdoors on the barbecue.

"Remember, smoking is an art, not a science," the Bradley manual declares. "Don't be afraid to experiment." Now I plan to cold-smoke fillet steak for carpaccio. I might also try cheddar, cod's roe, cockles, razor clams, smoked boiled eggs are said to be good ...

Meanwhile, I renewed my attempt at cold smoked sea trout using the six-hour Hix method. It proved sensational. "By far the best smoked fish I've ever had," said our friend Roger, who boasts a highly discriminating palate. "Miles better than any shop-bought smoked salmon." Three of us polished off a 500gm side in minutes.

The best smoked foods

* Adding smoked salmon is one of the best things you can do with scrambled eggs, but that's only the start of smoky cuisine. At London's Blueprint Café, head chef Jeremy Lee serves a starter of thick slices of smoked eel with horseradish cream in toasted slices of poilâne bread that may be the finest sandwich in existence.

* Fishcakes are never better than when made with big chunks of hot smoked salmon.

* One of my favourite pasta dishes is tagliatelle mixed with a tablespoon of crème fraiche, a glug of vodka and pieces of cold smoked salmon.

* Incorporating flakes of cooked smoked haddock and grated Parmesan, omelette Arnold Bennett, invented at the Savoy for the great novelist, is a totally delicious version of soufflé-omelette.

* Smoked haddock and saffron-infused rice come together in the classic version of kedgeree, the great breakfast dish of the Raj.

* Just occasionally, there is nothing to beat a fat kipper for breakfast. If they have been properly cured and smoked, kippers should be cooked already and require no more than a gentle heating under the grill. Jugged kippers (a brief dip in very hot water) are not recommended by the experts because they lose their oil.

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