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Issue 24 - All up in smoke

Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


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All up in smoke

Alex Mead looks at how Arbroath became world-famous for smoked haddock

Meddling magistrates and local councils have, forever it seems, been a thorn in somebody’s side somewhere and none more so than in Auchmithie, a small fishing village on Scotland’s east coast – three miles or so north east of Arbroath.

Arbroath. Now, that’s the place the Smokies come from isn’t it? Well, yes and no.

‘Yes’ it is now, but ‘no’ not originally. The reasoning behind that is of course going back to the councils. Along way back.

Keen to build a fishing colony in Arbroath, in 1705 the town’s council managed to tempt two fishing families – by the name of Cargill – to relocate from Auchmithie. It was an impressive coup, but oh-so short-lived, as the then owner of Auchmithie, the Earl of Northesk, managed to pull enough legal strings to reclaim the families as his ‘serfs’.

Ultimately, it only served to delay the inevitable – albeit for a good 100 years or so – as, by the beginning of the 19th century, fisherfolk were all heading south for the better facilities on offer in Arbroath. Family names such as Spink and Swankie, still seen adorning many businesses in the town, moved south to make Arbroath famous.

The product itself, and the finer detail of the way in which it is caught, dried and smoked has changed slightly over the years, but the basics of the Arbroath Smokie remain the same. And those basic are that an Arbroath Smokie is haddock that’s been gutted and washed and packed off to a smoke house. Once there, after being headed and cleaned, the haddock is then salted and left overnight before the good bit starts.

Said ‘good bit’ is of course the smoking, and that’s done over a hardwood-burning pit that is sunk into the ground of the smoke house. Over this hardwood fire, the haddock are tied by string in pairs and left to ‘smoke’ until the perfect golden brown colour is achieved and signals that they’re ready for the dinner table.

As for the taste, well, that’s something best left to the realms of tasting rather than wordsmithery. But it’s obviously good enough to have made Arbroath famous. “When you mention Arbroath and ask people what it’s famous for, what do they say?” says Bill Spink. “Despite the fact we actually achieved the highest ever score in a football match – 36-0 – the answer is we’re famous for Smokies. You think Arbroath, you think Smokies. They might have originated from Auchmithie, but it was Arbroath that made them famous.”

Bill could easily have also added the small matter of the Declaration of Arbroath – the founding document of the Scottish nation – and also the town’s abbey onto his list of things overshadowed by the tasty haddock, but his point’s one well made.

But then he should know. After all, with a surname like ‘Spink’, you won’t be surprised to learn that 72 year old Bill has been making Arbroath Smokies since he was a bairn and believes there’s nothing quite like them.

While Bill leaves the more mass production and exporting of Arbroath Smokies to other companies, he’s built up a strong reputation that sees people return on a yearly basis to his smoke house from all across Britain.

As with any good product however, the Arbroath Smokie has also been the victim of blatant plagiarism – ‘Arbroath Smokies’ have popped up in all sorts of places that are clearly, even for the most geographicallyconfused, not Arbroath.

It was for this very reason, that several of the local smoke houses joined together, backed by the council, to earn their pride and joy: Protected Geographical Interest (PGI) status – something awarded only by the European Commission.

They succeeded in 2004 and today, like Parma Ham from Parma and French Champagne from, well, France – an Arbroath Smokie can only be called such if it was smoked in the traditional method from within an eight kilometer radius of the town.

Luckily for us, with even the most traditional smoke houses – such as Bill’s – able to vacuum-pack their wares, we can enjoy this wonderful delicacy from anywhere in the world.