Leaning against the counter in my local fishmonger in Carmarthenshire, I listen to the owner tell the inside story of his years as a fish counter manager at Morrison’s supermarket. He left because of crates of fish left in cold stores for days; because of counters full of imported fish; because of tales of fishermen tossing buckets of unmarketable by-catch into the sea dead or alive; and because he believed in a better way.
Max from the Secret Smokehouse, in Hackney, East London is one who has found a better way.
I placed an order for a pair of kippers online and promptly received a cheerful email confirming I could collect the next day from the discrete final arch below the railway on Mentmore Terrace.
His smoked fish are beyond delicious. His childhood landscape the shores and coves of Loch Fyne and Lochgilphead, around which his family drove in the family car collecting parcels of hand-batch kippers and the freshest smoked salmon from smoke-sheds on the shores. In this way his taste bud were formed and his standards set.
He quotes two mantras. “You are only as good as your last smoke” and “Do one thing well”.
Thus, he makes just four products: kippers, smoked salmon, smoked trout and smoked haddock, sourced with incredible care and as fresh as sea daisies. The fish are cold-smoked using the London Cure. All that’s required is salt, oak smoke, time, attention and the indefinable ingredient of being smoked in this area.
It is the attention that distinguish this produce from that of larger smokehouses. In an operation like this every detail is subject to passionate human judgement and discernment. Max selects the fish and forms relationships with his suppliers: each understand the other's work and respect it. He can buy fish from small producers of quality. He oversees every part of the process, hand-filleting, pin boning, loading the smoker and checking the length of the smoke depending on weather and humidity. A larger operation would be bound by minimum orders, processes and standardisation. Two very different outcomes.
The area around Stepney and Hackney was once full of small smokehouses, a tradition imported by seafarers who crossed the cold North Sea from the brining and salting cultures of Scandinavia and Baltic to settle here. Hackney locals who loved the taste of kippers and smoked haddock (and who could perhaps remember those smokehouses) supported him in his early endeavours. Later, it was a Michelin starred chef who declared his smoked salmon ‘phenomenal’ and his course was set.
Max sets the highest possible standards. Working in an environment cleaner even than some hospitals. And he has plans to deliver the fish in an electric vehicle.
When asked what is the most gratifying aspect of his livelihood, without hesitation he says it is the smile on customer’s faces when they collect their purchases. He says that working a business like this is like managing a difficult child all day long, but when that loved child gives a kiss at the end of the day it makes all the hard work, love and passion worthwhile.
Find the Secret Smokehouse online at www.secretsmokehouse.co.uk
Pictures courtesy of Ronan Gallagher.