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Issue 18 - Special place where everything's up in smoke

Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Special place where everything's up in smoke

The Rannoch Smokery produces superb smoked meat products. Sally Toms visited it

I hope none of you are vegetarians, if you are you’ve come to the wrong place.” Richard Barclay, owner and managing director of Rannoch Smokery, introduces himself to our group over a delicious looking lunch of crusty bread, green salad and a large plate of Rannoch Smokery’s produce; venison, beef, duck, chicken, pork and goose – sauced, smoked and sliced.

We look hungry. He looks relieved.

Rannoch Smokery is situated in the pretty Perthshire village of Kinloch Rannoch, which may well be the most geographically central village in Scotland. Sandwiched between Loch Rannoch and the well-known peak of Schiehallion (or so I’m told, it was completely hidden by cloud during our visit), the smokery itself is plain-looking but modern. Inside, the walls are adorned with awards of the highest order (five alone from this year’s Great Taste food awards).

The success of the Barclay family business began one winter’s day in 1986; Richard’s father Leo had culled six deer that day, but it had snowed so heavily that the game dealer physically couldn’t make it up to Kinloch Rannoch to collect them. Not having enough space in his freezer for six large hinds, Leo Barclay decided to experiment.

He brined the venison in the bath of the little estate cottage, then smoked them in the old wooden kennels. Primitive, but effective.

Friends and family couldn’t get enough. So he built a small smokery and started a business. It flourished.

In November 1993 the whole lot (rather ironically) burnt to the ground. However, this did mean the small smokehouse could be entirely rebuilt as a hi-tech, super state of the art ‘factory’. With 16 full time staff, Richard’s company now supplies two well known supermarket chains, Harrod’s and Selfridges, as well as the prestigious Gleneagles hotel.

Cold smoked venison could be called the signature product of Rannoch Smokery, and often comes from the wild red deer that roam the bens and glens of the Barclay family estate. And what an estate. 5,000 acres of the most spectacular Highland scenery you are ever likely to see.

Richard takes us for a drive through these hills to show us where the process begins. He has a well trained eye, and it doesn’t take long before he finds what he’s looking for.

“Four over there by that burn; a stag, two hinds and a calf.”

We’re talking at least half a mile here, and deer are pretty much ‘hill-coloured’, which makes them incredibly difficult to spot.

The deer of Barclay estate are not killed for sport. A cull is necessary every year to control population levels and to maintain the herd.

Stalking one hind often takes several hours. The stalker must get to within 180 yards of the deer without being spotted. Not as easy as it sounds. Deer obviously know how good they taste and have developed an impressive sense of smell and sensitivity to movement to foil our plans to eat them.

But, if the stalker has been successful, the carcass may still be a several hour walk from the vehicle. In which case, a fantastic home-made machine known only as ‘the Bogle’ will fetch it.

It may look like a reject from Scrap Heap Challenge but the Bogle has no difficulty climbing up or down 45º slopes to fetch a hind from the places other vehicles cannot reach, and delivering it into Richard’s game larder.

Because Richard only smokes certain cuts of venison, it is easier for him to sell the hind to a game dealer to be butchered, then buy back what he wants. After no time at all, the meat is delivered back to Rannoch Smokery for the next step.

First, the meat is cured in brine. Richard carefully calculates a different combination of water, salt, sugar and herbs (such as juniper, parsley and ginger) for each meat smoked.

Next comes the smoking itself. The cured meat is hung in nets and placed inside the kiln for anywhere between four and 80 hours, where it can either be cold smoked (at 30ºc) or hot smoked (at 72ºc).

The names imply that hot smoked meats are ‘cooked’ and cold smoked meats are not, but that isn’t the case. Cured meat doesn’t need cooking at all; the salt in the brine removes any harmful bacteria by removing the moisture. The bacteria can be killed, rather than removed, by the application of heat, ie. cooking. Same result, different process.

The smoke itself is not a bitter, campfire sort of smoke but has a much more pleasant, much sweeter fragrance. It is piped from a shed outside, inside which there is a little stove that is continually stoked with the beautifully fragrant chippings of old oak whisky barrels.

Aren’t they expensive? Richard explains that he knows some people at a cooperage who are as fond of his produce as he is of theirs – so they barter. It seems appropriate, somehow.

The smoking continues to cure the meat, but the main role of those ill-gotten chippings is to tenderise and add real depth of flavour to the meat. The result is a smoothness and texture like nothing on earth. The venison has a rich pink colour with no hint of that grey pallor overcooked meat can sometimes have. It just melts in your mouth.

Not all the meat smoked at Rannoch comes from these hills. Richard is restricted to 80 hinds a year from the estate, whereas the smokery can go through 25 tonnes of venison. Nor are ducks and chickens seen roaming wild on the beautiful mountains around Loch Rannoch.

But Richard is proud of the ethos of his company to source only the best free range, organic and local meat (where possible; the Barbary ducks are actually French). So you can bet that if the venison you are eating did not originate from Kinloch Rannoch, it came from somewhere very similar.

Smokehouses have come a long way since our ancestors first hung cuts of meat or fish in their chimneys. Today, we use hi-tech ‘vacuum massagers’ and kilns. But somewhere along the line, the pendulum has swung between smoking for preservation and smoking for flavour.

The charm of this particular smokehouse lies not only in the history of Richard’s family business, or in the idyllic Scottish village of Kinloch Rannoch, but through the impression you get that this is a home made product.

Sounds silly. But what is the definition of home made anyway? This is Richard’s home, the meat is smoked to recipes of his creation, from produce that often comes wandering into the car park. The only difference is that he has a few more people working in his kitchen.