The two native stars of smoke and pot are shrimps and salmon. Reputedly, the finest potted shrimps are from Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. Here, a certain Mr Baxter buries them in the finest spiced butter and dispatches them mail-order all over the land. They are famously good, the best commercially made brand I know. The salmon story has become a little more ubiquitous.
With the onset of the vast sea-vats of farmed salmon that churn out identikit fish around our coastal waters and that of Ireland, too, the taste and texture of the fish, once smoked, has changed for ever. Its formality and consistency has been welcomed by the masses, but its character is now lost to the supermarket pre-packaging facility and the fast-food outlet. With a few exceptions, it is, tragically, no longer the treat it once was.
One exception is the excellent Minola Smoked Products near Lechlade, Gloucestershire. Minola has won many plaudits over the years due to the enterprising and hard- working Hugh Forestier-Walker. His is a smokier operation than most, with the taste of the oak logs coming through good and strong. The result is a finely tuned balance between smoke and gentle cure, together with the original taste of the fish itself.
You can call in at Minola during normal working hours, but it is often best to phone in advance. There is a small retail shop, but it is set among a cluster of buildings on the site of a disused airfield. Mr Forestier-Walker will also cure and smoke your own wild fish - whether honestly caught or bought.
Severn & Wye smokery, in the Forest of Dean, smokes some of the most delicious wild salmon. David Blagden (of Blagdens fishmongers of Marylebone in London) gave me a sliver to taste the other day. The texture is the first thing that grabs you: smooth, very smooth but with a density only the powerfully muscled wild fish can achieve. Then you notice the flavour: deeply, naturally savoury (a piece of raw wild salmon already has this note), and with a sweetness that bears out its diet of foraged crustacea. It costs some (pounds 22 per lb, sliced), this wild and wonderful stuff, but it is worth every penny.
Severn & Wye smoke a good eel, too. Some of the wrigglers, naturally, come from the Severn and Wye rivers; others from Irish waterways. The majestic Severn becomes world-famous in the spring for its elver (infant eels) harvest. This is a pricey delicacy if you ever get your hands on it, as most of the catch is exported to eel farms as far away as Japan.
Potting shrimps is one of the best - if not the best - things to do to a brown shrimp. Mind you, I have always been partial to an English pink shrimp sauce (flour-thickened white sauce with lemon juice, parsley and the merest dash of anchovy essence); the lovely shrimp croustade that Baba Hine cooks at Gorse Lawn Hotel, Corse Lawn, between Tewkesbury and Gloucester; and as simply a dish of shrimps in their shells with lemon and mayonnaise.
Ironically, a lunch of impeccable peeled shrimps, a few slices of smoked eel, some hot, peeled and buttered new potatoes and mayonnaise at the Oesterbar in Amsterdam is, perhaps, the most perfect quartet of ingredients I can remember eating. The accompanying bottle of Louis Michell grand cru chablis made it even more memorable.
Smoked eel, fresh horseradish cream and warm potatoes, serves 4
This combination is heaven. Horseradish is famously good with all smoked fish, but with eel it truly comes into its own. The slice of warm and waxy steamed potato that carries the assembly seems splendidly correct: the right stuff. I should insist that the horseradish cream is freshly made, but if you are an interminable weeper, the jars of it from Tesco's "Finest" range, is the finest I have come across in a long time.
250-300g of smoked eel fillet - depending upon how greedy you feel
8-10 small to medium-sized waxy potatoes (charlotte are good)
For the horseradish cream
175g piece of fresh horseradish root, peeled and freshly grated
2 tsp sugar
I level tsp salt
Juice of one lemon
27ml double cream
First make the horseradish cream. Place the grated horseradish in the bowl of a food processor, together with the sugar, salt and lemon juice. Work to a smooth paste and tip into a fairly roomy bowl. Add the cream, and beat together with a whisk. Watch how you go, as the mixture will thicken quite quickly. Check for more salt, sugar or lemon juice and spoon into a bowl ready for use. Leave to mature in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Wash the potatoes and place in a steamer. Sprinkle salt over them and steam until tender when pierced with the point of a small sharp knife. Remove and leave to cool for five minutes, then peel off their papery skins using the same knife (readers of my recent lengthy essay on steaming potatoes will know all about this). Do not allow the potatoes to cool completely, as they can then be a sod to peel. Once dealt with, put the peeled potatoes back into the still-warm steamer. Cut the eel fillets into small lozenges and put on to a plate.
To assemble: cut the potatoes into thick-ish slices, smear with a goodly wave of the horseradish and place a piece of eel on top. You may wish to sprinkle a few snipped chives atop the assembly to pretty the thing, especially if you wish to serve this as a "cocktail snack". Naturally, if you decide upon this route, dimensions all round should be reduced.
Potted Shrimps, serves 6
A source of peeled shrimps is the very devil of a thing to find. Perhaps the best way is to bully your fishmonger, or at least ask him to make inquiries. In London, such places as Selfridges or Harrods food halls may stock them. The crustacea van at the Michelin Building in Fulham Road should also be able to help you. Failing all those options - or if you live in the middle of nowhere - you may just have to buy them in shell, sit down at the kitchen table with worthwhile friends, open a bottle of wine, and set to with nimble fingers, while wondering how the men and women of Morecambe manage this excellent task every day of the working week.
Potted shrimps are brilliant for picnics. Make them in small, lidded plastic pots for ease of transport (ensuring the butter is not too hot) and simply fork directly on to slices of good brown bread. Don't forget the essential lemons and a pepper grinder.
350g brown shrimps
175g best-quality unsalted butter
I tsp cayenne pepper
I tsp ground mace
Generous scraping of nutmeg
Juice of a lemon
In a large frying pan, melt 100g of the butter. When hot but not frothing, tip in the shrimps and stir around until heated through. Sprinkle with a little salt and stir in the spices. Squeeze in the lemon juice and remove from the heat.
Take six ramekins and divide the buttery shrimps between them, making sure you collect an equal amount of liquid and butter to the shrimps in each pot. Gently press down with the back of a spoon so the shrimps are as submerged as possible. Place in the fridge to cool. Melt the remaining 75g of the butter and spoon over the tops to seal. Return to the fridge where they will be fine if stored for up to four days.
Potted smoked salmon with spring onions and sour cream, serves 4
This one is for those of you who were brought up on those dear little jars of paste - and hated them so much they made you sick. I actually liked some of them, particularly the chicken one.
You can use smoked salmon off-cuts to make this dish, but they must be of reasonable quality. Fatty, discoloured, bony and skin-bits are not good enough. It is a delicious little dish, after all, so buy the most sensibly priced real thing and do it properly.
250g smoked salmon, cut into 2cm dice
75g unsalted butter
150ml soured cream
4 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 flat tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
Juice of a small lemon
Plenty of freshly ground white pepper
Good pinch of ground mace
6-7 tbsp melted unsalted butter
A few extra leaves of tarragon
Melt the butter in a shallow pan and heat until hot but not frothing. Turn the smoked-salmon dice through this, over a very low light, with a wooden spoon. Add the soured cream, the spring onions, tarragon, lemon juice, pepper and mace. Stir together and heat through until you just see the odd bubble forming on the surface (not much longer or the mixture may separate). Try not to break up the fish too much, although some falling apart will be inevitable. The centre of each chunk should remain a little opaque; remember, the fish will carry on cooking in its own heat once removed from the source.
Remove the pan from the heat and pack the mixture into four ramekins. Cover with film and chill in the fridge. Once cold, spoon over the melted butter to seal the pots, dropping a few sprigs of fresh tarragon to set into the melted butter as you go. Serve from the ramekins with hot buttered toast. A glass or two of iced vodka is very good with this one
James Baxter & Son, Morecambe, Lancashire (01524 410910); Minola Smoked Products, Filkins, Gloucestershire (01367 860391); Severn & Wye Smokery, Minsterworth, Gloucestershire (01452 750 777); Bibendum Crustacea, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 (0171-589 0864)Reuse content