Tonight in London, at the Great Taste Awards, Sally Barnes of the Woodcock Smokery in West Cork won the award for best wild smoked salmon for the second time in a row. This, as far as I can gather, is a unique achievement and the award was presented, very appropriately, by Richard Corrigan.
Sally is an inspirational artisan producer who doesn’t compromise. It’s my belief that she produces the best smoked salmon in the world, by quite a margin. The texture is drier than most, which appeals to me, and there is a goodly amount of smoke. But at the same time it’s subtle and magical. I know it’s not cheap. How can it be? But I also know that Sally doesn’t drive a flashy car or go on lots of expensive holidays. People like this do what they do because they believe in the product. If it helps to make a living, then that’s a bonus.
Well done, Sally and team!
A few years back I wrote the following piece for Derry and Sallyanne Clarke’s Not So Much a Cookbook. Bear in mind that it’s not up to date. But maybe it’s worth revisiting in the light of this great achivement:
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It’s not that Sally Barnes got into fish smoking by accident. I reckon she was destined to become what she is today: one of the best smokers on the planet. But I’m always amazed how many brilliant, passionate producers are kind of selected by Fate and one day – bang! – they discover their true vocation.
It happened to Sally in 1981. Her husband was a fisherman working off the coast of West Cork. There wasn’t a lot of luxury in their life, but they loved it. However, money was scarce and when one of his customers went bust things looked black. The debt was settled in kind and Mr Barnes was given a smoking kiln.
He wanted to sell it but Sally had other ideas. She had been experimenting with smoking. As she says, it’s one of the oldest ways of preserving food and it’s a traditional way of dealing with a glut. But she had only got as far as sawdust and biscuit tins. The kiln was like getting a Lexus when you were used to a rusty old bike.
With two small children, very little money and the winter setting in, she discovered that she could produce something that people really wanted, especially around Christmas: smoked wild Irish salmon.
For the first few years, Sally’s Woodcock Smokery supplied local people. But good news travels fast in the food world. In no time she had a loyal bunch of customers who wanted to spread the gospel. And it soon went beyond salmon. Sally Barnes was becoming a landmark in foodie West Cork. And West Cork, being a kind of melting pot, is known about all over the place. Soon Jancis Robinson, the wine writer, was telling the media that she would be starting her Christmas dinner with Sally’s smoked salmon.
Sally was destined to be brilliant at whatever she does. She’s a true believer. And to be a true believer you need curiosity and dedication. The energy goes without saying.
It wasn’t enough for Sally to produce the best smoked fish in Ireland. Maybe the best smoked salmon in the world. She also put herself through the Open University. Twice. She took degrees in biology and in oceanography because, as she says, she wanted to understand the science behind what she does.
Her approach to smoking is very traditional. “It evolved as a preservation technique,” she says. “The salting and the esters from the smoke kill bacteria but these days that’s not so important so smoking is more about flavour. I just prefer the old-fashioned way because it delivers more smokiness and more character. But without losing the real character of the fish.”
According to Sally, there’s no formula for smoking. “It all depends on the individual fish,” she says. “The size, the salting, the position in the kiln. It’s different for every item that goes in. You can’t mass-produce this stuff. It needs your head and your hands.”
Her palate is unbelievable. Anyone who has ever tasted her smoked haddock will know that it leaves the rest standing. Her secret is simple. She feels that a little fruit wood mixed in with the usual oak chips brings out something. A kind of character that you only get in haddock.
Being a true believer isn’t easy. Sally has only ever used wild fish. She feels very strongly about this. She is scathing about fish farming in general and is up in arms about the very idea of “organic salmon”. “This is a con job,” she says. “How can it be natural and sustainable when it takes between 3lb and 5lb of wild fish to produce a mere pound of so called organic farmed salmon?”
“Fish farming is an environmental abomination,” she says. “In Norway at this stage, 40% of the wild salmon catch are escapees from farms. What does that tell you about what fish farming is doing?”
The problem for Sally is that wild Irish salmon is now like hen’s teeth.
When Ireland brought in a ban of drift nets a few years ago, there was uproar. Some people say that this is vital if wild salmon is to survive. But others disagree. Sally Barnews believes that the ban was imposed because of the power of the rich, amateur angling lobby. Whatever the truth of the situation, the effect has been disastrous for people like her. The supply of wild fish has almost entirely dried up.
She is importing wild fish from Scotland, as she says “just to survive”. “It’s lovely fish but when I asked the fisheries people how I should label it they said Product of Ireland! Anything than be a Product of Ireland provided something is done to it once you get it here. You could just cut it into steaks and say its Product of Ireland! Isn’t that just plain mad?”
The drift net ban, in the end, was down to the EU. They put the pressure on Ireland. But Sally’s real argument is with the Irish government. “The ban was introduced because of a habitat directive,” she says. “The government went overboard complying with that directive but they’ve been ignoring another one, an environmental directive about water pollution. There’s raw sewage still floating down the river through Skibbereen. What the hell does that tell you about priorities?”
Globalisation, she says, is behind the decline in the old ways of fishing: using day boats to catch and deliver truly fresh fish. “The dealers don’t care where fish comes from any more,” she says. “They will move huge quantities of fish around the world, fish from trawlers the size of a village that go out for weeks on end. How can proper fishermen get a decent price for risking their lives in a world like that?”
There’s factory farming and there’s factory fishing. Recently, Ireland’s entire mackerel quota was caught by six boats in just three weeks. It’s no wonder, with that and the drift net ban that Sally took a break a couple of years ago and went to Cape Cod in the United States. She went there because she wanted to help an old friend set up a smokehouse using arctic species of fish.
“It was fascinating,” she said. “With fish like King Salmon from Alaska the fat distribution is totally different and I had to re-learn the salting process. But the smokehouse I helped set up has won lots of awards so I guess I’m okay as a teacher. Maybe that’s what I’ll end up doing. Teaching people around the world how to do it.”
But there is hope for the Woodcock Smokery. Sally’s daughter Joleine is now working there and experimenting with new products. They have found a source of superb, organically reared ducks nearby. Now they will have to get permission from the authorities to start smoking them. If all goes well, Ireland will have a new classic from a great producer. But Sally’s story tells you a lot. Like that great food is never easy. And that bureaucracy gets in the way.