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Smoking Out Local Talent

Beth Hancock, 01 May, 2014
Angling enthusiast Justin Staal set up his own smokehouse after travelling to far-flung corners of the globe and seeing first-hand how different cultures cure fish, game and meat. Like most aspects of cooking, smoking is far from being an exact science; it’s part art, too.

And it turns out he’s got quite a talent for it, having already won several awards since opening two-and-a-half years ago. True, he picked up lots of valuable tips from cooks of different nationalities who let him nose, quite literally, around their kilns and taught him about traditional curing methods, but, while the uninitiated would be forgiven for thinking that smoking is smoking, end of story, there are ways that smokehouses can create their own ‘style’.

Following lots of experimentation, Justin is very precise when it comes to the ratio of sea salt to dark molasses sugar that he rubs over the fish, to the temperatures that he smokes each product at, to the length of time they are smoked for, and to the sawdust that he smoulders. These work for him, achieving the desired subtle smoky flavour that complements rather than overpowers the food, but each smokehouse has its own – often closely guarded – way of doing it, particularly when it comes to the sawdust. Many use oak wood, but some favour a different wood (just about any deciduous tree can be used), while others, like Justin, who has opted for a blend of oak and apple, employ a combination of woods – it’s like their signature.

Just how closely these ‘trade secrets’ are guarded was evident when Justin tried, and failed, to visit other English smokehouses during his research prior to setting up on his own. Then it struck him that foreign smokehouses were more likely to open their doors to him, so he took himself off to the farming heartland of Iceland, gleaning more tricks of the trade while sampling cured ptarmigan and other Nordic delicacies.

The land of fire and ice is relatively close to home compared to other places he’s visited. During his ten years in the travel industry, when he worked for a company offering bespoke fly-fishing holidays, he travelled to destinations as diverse as the Seychelles and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. So great is the fishing on the River Kharlovka that runs through this remote strip of land that he’d love to return there some day, though he also dreams of fishing on Norway’s River Alta, famous in the angling world for its huge salmon.

The countryside surrounding the handsome East Yorkshire market town of Beverley where he and his wife Georgina are now based is not quite so exotic. However, it is here that Georgina’s parents have their farm, so by opening the smokehouse they are helping to diversify the family’s existing farming enterprise.

Sourcing high-quality poultry and meat within Yorkshire, a keystone in the business as far as Justin is concerned, was not a problem. The trout is as local as local could be, clocking up negligible food miles as it is transported from the next village three miles down the road. The exception is the salmon, but, given how passionate a fly-fisherman he is, you can understand Justin’s decision to flout his own rule in this particular case and opt instead for salmon reared on sustainable farms along Scotland’s west coast.

The exception is the salmon, but, given how passionate a fly-fisherman he is, you can understand Justin’s decision to flout his own rule in this particular case and opt instead for salmon reared on sustainable farms along Scotland’s west coast.

One ‘rule’ he won’t ever break is: be patient – in this cottage industry it’s sacrosanct. Cut short the initial maturing process and the salt won’t have time to disperse evenly through the flesh and effect the chemical change that allows the smoke to work its magic. Similarly, try to rush the cold-smoking process by raising the temperature and the structure of the fish will break down as it starts to cook. Then there’s the final maturing process in the chiller that gives the smoke time to permeate evenly. Justin’s salmon takes twelve hours, and that’s just the cold-smoking at below 30°C.

So, if you were thinking about ordering some smoked trout to be delivered to your door for a meal this weekend, you might be better thinking about the week after. But you’ll end up with fish that has been smoked to order and has a wonderful texture and taste, and that’s worth waiting for.

Try it for yourself

If you live in Yorkshire, you can sample Justin’s delicious smoked fish, duck and chicken at numerous shops and restaurants – see his website for more details. For anyone living further afield within the UK, you can order products online to be delivered to you.
Staal Smokehouse >
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