WHITBY Seafish recently received a best seafood award for their oak smoked salmon, and the Gazette went along to find out how this Staithes delicacy is created.
The process begins at 5am at the Whitegate Close factory, where a small team begins filleting salmon delivered the day before from Loch Duart, an RSPCA Freedom Foods provider.
Co-owner Vicky Dixon has been with the company for six years.
In a previously life she worked in a Warrington prison and said that the change to working in a fish factory came as a shock at first.
She said: “The first job I had here was to take the heads off the fish and they told me ‘what you have to do is stick your thumb in it’s eye’.
“How I managed that first day without being ill is incredible.”
For the first task in the smoking process a whole salmon is placed on the filleting table, four of which surround a single basin of water, used to rinse the knife and dispose of cuttings.
Rinsing the knife and occasionally dipping the salmon in the water washes off the scales and slime, making injuries less likely, but the image of four women facing inwards and chatting while they work is reminiscent of fishwives completing their daily graft, even though smoked salmon has only been made here for two years.
A sharp knife and confidence is key and although it takes longer than buying in fish pre-cut, filleting on site helps ensure the quality.
Vicky said: “You could buy in fillets, but when you do it yourself you take full responsibility for it. You know how fresh it is and you know everything about each fish right from the beginning.”
While cutting the two flanks off the salmon Vicky explains that a fresh fish will feel slimy, have bright red gills and clear eyes - as a fish carcass ages the eyes become cloudy.
When filleted, the salmon is passed on to Les Jefferson, who continues the process by rubbing salt into the flesh.
Since joining the company almost three years ago Les has become the “master smoker” at Whitby Seafish, due in part to his smoking of around 56 sides of salmon every week.
Salting cures the meat by drawing out the moisture, chemically cooking the fish over 18 hours to give it a longer lifespan.
Les quotes a salt-to-meat percentage of 3.2% as the ideal, proving that this company has done its research.
The salt is then washed off and the fillets are left to stand for 24 hours.
Vicky explained that taking your time is a vital part of the process: “We don’t scrimp on time, which a lot of places will do. Having the right level of salt does draw out the moisture, so in effect you are losing weight and money, but if it tastes good then people will buy it.”
Somewhat surprisingly, it is not the smoking that cooks the fish, instead the oven is actually quite cool as the fish is “cold smoked”.
In drawers which feed into the main smoker are placed pinewood chips, on top of which is a layer of oak sawdust, moistened to produce the smoke and therefore the flavour.
The pinewood is then lit, smouldering the wet sawdust above it, and Les explained why oak is used: “It gives the best flavour.
“We tried different woods when we started and gave it to our regulars to try, but oak always came out on top. Some companies will smoke for 24 hours but that is too smokey, so we do it for 12 - it’s about getting the right balance of flavour.”
When smoked, the salmon is sliced, packaged and distributed the factory shop, other retailers and restaurants, where the now award-winning product continues to gain a growing reputation.
It’s a simple process but one that demonstrates the continuing virtues of taking your time.
Whitby Seafish were awarded the Best Fish and Seafood award at deliciouslyyorkshire’s awards ceremony recently. For more information about Whitby Seafish, call the factory and smokehouse on (01947) 841236.