The new fish supper: Kippers are popping up on all the best menus

Kippers have captured our hearts again and the smoky treats are far too good to eat only for breakfast, says Anthea Gerrie

It could be the state of the economy, or maybe just a nostalgia for simpler times. But whatever the reason, the kipper has recaptured the British heart and palate. Marks & Spencer recently reported a 300 per cent increase in sales, but the smoked herrings they have seen flying out of the store at £1 per pack are also attracting a well-heeled clientele in London's smartest restaurants. St John, The Wolseley and the Savoy's River Room all have kippers on the menu and their whole, un-split siblings, bloaters, are a much-awaited treat at the Soho Champagne bar, Randall & Aubin. The owner, chef Ed Baines, reports: "They fly off the bar whenever I put them on."

Savoy archivist Susan Scott says kippers have been a fixture on the breakfast menu since the hotel opened in 1889 and, more than 100 years later, River Restaurant manager Emma Sandle reports they are rivalling egg dishes as the favourite hot choice. All this may surprise those who feel kippers are declassé and too pungent and bony to be given fridge space, but part of the new wave of popularity could be that today's version are not always what they seem.

While M&S stands by its traditional smoked herrings, Sainsburys – while glorifying that item in their Taste the Difference range – have simultaneously instituted a fishy revolution by kippering sardines. "It has overcome a certain resistance. Although we've seen growth in kippers in general, we've found that substituting sardines has introduced them to a whole new generation," says Darryl Burchell, who oversees Sainsburys fresh food counters.

"While the kippered herring remains the province of an older, more affluent customer, for many customers there's the issue of bones, which is not a problem with sardines."

Some smoking professionals, however, believe sardines are too small to take well to the process, which basically involves the fish being split and set out in a hot shed on a tray. They feel the new intruders can dry out too quickly.

For restaurants that pride themselves on purveying traditional British produce, it has to be the real thing. St John sells kippered herrings landed in both the Isle of Man and Lowestoft and chef Fergus Henderson says: "There's nothing finer, especially when washed down with a glass of Black Velvet."

But it can indeed be the province of the purist, he warns, which is why he buys from different sources: "The Manx is quite dark and intense, while the Lowestoft is a more laid-back kipper."

Because he feels the general intensity of kippers is emphasised by grilling, he prefers to throw them into a hot oven, "then add a big knob of butter and keep an eye on them".

Although they are on the breakfast menu at St John's East End venture Bread and Wine, they feature all day long on the main restaurant's bar menu, and Henderson says: "They make a very fine supper." But not if you require veg at teatime: "They get in the way," he believes. "The only other items on the plate should be brown bread and a wedge of lemon."

M&S believes the very presence of the working man's kipper in trendy eateries has driven their sales boom.

"Whenever an ingredient becomes fashionable out of the home we see customer demand increase, but there is more to it than fashion," says fish buyer Chloe Soppet. "There's been a general increase of interest in smoked foods, so sales of smoked haddock and smoked cheese are also up.

"But also, there's a nostalgic return to traditional foods when people are having a tough time financially. And there's also the fact kippers are healthier option than a fry-up for people who have been opting for hot breakfasts in this record cold winter."

Indeed, health figures loom large in any discussion of kippers, with Burchell claiming: "They are so rich in omega-3 that by turning on a new generation to kippers, we're guaranteeing a nation with a healthier future."

This could well be so. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid which helps prevent heart disease, encourages proper development of babies' nervous systems and has even been associated with lowering the risk of cancer.

Kipper connoisseurs will be concerned with provenance, as well as health benefits, with many believing the finest come from Craster in Northumberland.

There is a fierce debate over whether kippers originated on the Northumberland coast in 1843 or in Great Yarmouth hundreds of years earlier – in 1599, Thomas Nashe wrote of a fisherman there having discovered the delights of smoked herring by accident.

It's been an exportable treat – in both Europe and the USA, kippers are eaten cold from the can as a gourmet treat. Back at home, Organico has introduced tinned kippers prepared this way, cold on toast or warmed through in a saucepan of hot water – though you'll pay nearly three times the price for only three-quarters the amount.

Frankly, there's so little fuss in a fresh kipper, whether you just stick the whole pack of boil-in-the-bag into a saucepan of water and simmer to heat through, or take a fishmonger's specimen and lay it on a foil-lined grill, that cans seem redundant unless you are after ready-flaked fish for a recipe.

And at an astonishing £1 or less for 200 grams, the fresh variety has got to be the best value fish in the market.

Cooking with kippers

* GIs billeted in Britain startled their wartime hosts by eating marmalade with their kippers, a strange combination American food writer Marlena Spieler, who lives in Hampshire, unwittingly reprised: "Knowing the Indian cookbook author Mridula Baljekar loves smoked fish, I bought some kippers as a starter for our dinner. I served them with the home-made fruit chutneys she brought, and the pairing was inspired."

* A less startling sweet foil for salty kipper flesh is sliced onions caramelised in butter to which ripe tomatoes have been added. The cooked-down mixture is delicious piled the length of the grilled kipper's central divide.

* It may take a leap too far of the imagination to do as Haitians do and fold kipper flesh into pasta. However, it combines well with rice in Organico's kedgeree recipe. Flake a can or two of their kippers into hard-boiled eggs and chopped sauteed onion, season with salt, cayenne and black pepper and add to basmati flavoured with turmeric, then stir in a little butter and/or double cream.

* Fergus Henderson makes kipper pate, though admits: "I only do it for home. I wouldn't put it on the restaurant menu because there's something just so Seventies about it."

Kipper and haddock pie

By Tristan Welch

This recipe, which combines kippers with unsmoked haddock, has been a favourite at London restaurant Launceston Place.

Boil 500g potatoes in salted water until cooked. Meanwhile poach 2 whole kippers and 200g fresh haddock in 400g whole milk infused with a bayleaf. Strain when cooled, reserve the milk and flake the fish.

Make a roux with 20g each of butter and plain flour, gradually add milk and simmer for 10 minutes, while wilting 300g baby spinach with a little butter in a separate pan.

Divide dried spinach and fish between 4 serving dishes, pour over the sauce, mash cooked potatoes with 20g each milk and butter, fold in 3 egg yolks and season. Pipe the potato mixture on top of the pie and bake for 20 minutes.

Smokehouse favourites

Smoked mackerel, which has the same Omega-3 benefits as kippers and other oily fish, can be dull when served up as a plain or peppered fillet. But it makes a delectable dip simply mashed into Greek yogurt or cream cheese, with the optional additions of parsley, lemon juice and/or a little horseradish sauce.

Starter of the Year accolades have been heaped on the smoked eel "soldiers" at Eddie Gilberts of Ramsgate, which are breaded and deep-fried to dip into soft-boiled duck egg. It would be possible to ape this idea with one of the drier, more intense kippers such as the smoked Arbroaths from M&S.

While herring and trout are smoked aplenty in Arbroath, the town is best-known for its eponymous Smokie, considered by many the king of smoked haddock. At Canteen, a London restaurant chain, it's served two ways – on its own as a starter or with spinach and mash as a main.

Smoked haddock is a somewhat pricier proposition than kippers, but also invariably graces the breakfast menus of traditional British hotels. There, is, however, more to do with it than poaching in milk and topping with a poached egg. Diced and mixed with cubes of leek and potato in milk and cream, smoked haddock makes the delicious Scottish chowder known as cullen skink.

For those who like the idea of smoked haddock but are averse to the idea of handling it, the Saucy Fish Company have created a sealed bag for Tesco which can be put straight into the oven with a cheddar and chive sauce. It's one step on from the boil-in-the-bag kipper, which also needs no handling except to release from its bag, heat and serve.