Could we have kippers for breakfast
Mummy dear, mummy dear
They got to have ‘em in texas
Cos everyones a millionaire
(Breakfast in America, Supertramp).
You don’t have to be wealthy to have kippers for breakfast, although they aren’t too cheap for good ones and they stink the house out. Apparently they used to be very popular on British Rail dining cars (and in business hotels) based on many suburban housewives refusing to cook them. These days they are less common.
So what is a kipper? Generally a herring, cleaned out, salted and then smoked. Manx kippers are famous worldwide for their quality and flavour, although I have never been an overly fishy foodie. I was curious, however, to visit Man’s sole remaining traditional smokehouse in Peel which advertised daily tours so we assembled in the factory yard for 3:30pm. It wasn’t hard to find, you just followed your nose and then your eyes towards the smoke wafting across the river.
Shortly after the appointed time, the owner Paul Desmond came out (with a respirator round his neck) and apologised because he said that the factory was full of smoke due to the unusual nature of the wind and he was having to give his full attention to the fire. However, he’d waive the usual fee and get one of his lads to talk to us about the process.
It turned out to be his teenage Son James who had a holiday job there. He explained that for the preparation, the fresh fish were gutted, cleaned out and soaked in brine for about ten minutes. Originally, squads of labourers (generally women) would do the fish preparation but they now had machinery that could prepare the fish at a rate of one a second. The fish were then fixed onto wooden square rods (which had rows of nail heads each side) and placed into the chimney, a brick rectangular tower with wooden wall bars for supporting the rods. This was done by someone standing with their legs spread across the beams half way up the tower, being passed the fish rods to place or pass onwards up towards the roof. At the top of the tower were rectangular vents, one either side of the pitched roof. One or other was opened, according to the direction of the prevailing wind.If the wind changed direction, it was necessary to go up into the chimney and swap over the hatches and this could be very time consuming on a gusty day.
The smoking process typically took about ten hours depending upon weather conditions and there was a definite art to it. The fish needed to absorb enough smoke to get the right level of flavour but they shouldn’t get too hot that they started to cook. The fish needed to be rotated through the chimney so that they were smoked evenly.
We were surprised to find out how they judged the prevailing wind direction without the aid of weathercocks or more advanced technology. The answer was all around- whenever seagulls perch on a roof they face into the wind to avoid getting blown off if they are side on. Once this is pointed out to you then it becomes very apparent, you can even tell which side they will land on a wall when they are trying to steal your chips…
We were taken into the main fish house (lined with white ceramic tiles with the timber fixtures in deep red, the Moores house colour) and were led into an empty chimney. The doors into the chimney were split into four panels As this was on an the extreme right and on an outside wall, it tended to be used the least, particularly in colder weather. The bottom area was simply a concrete floor and soot stained brick walls, the cross-timbers beginning a couple of feet above head height. A latticework of horizontal wall timbers could be seen above us with the roof vent 20′ or so above our heads.
The room was rather gloomily lit by a couple of naked light bulbs and a more modern emergency fitting. Our right hand wall was simply boarded and looking behind it, there was a wooden stair leading up to a mezzanine level.Someone asked why so much timber was used in the presence of a fire and it was explained that the fires smouldered rather than raged and anyway most of the building was brick so if the timber caught light, it could readily be replaced. They didn’t stretch out across the beams any more when loading, laying a temporary false floor for the purpose in the interests of health and safety. The recommendation by the safety elf that smoke detectors be fitted in the building was treated with widespread derision!
On leaving the chimney, we observed the master-smoker at work, sat on a sawdust bale wearing a respirator whilst watching the fires within. He would open and shut the doors to counteract unseen changes and occasionally the smoke would be seen to billow outwards then suddenly get sucked back in again. He had a metal scoop-like shovel that could be used to fling more wood chippings onto the fire and he simply used a fish rod to poke the fire. He explained that there were about 4,000 herring in the chimney and they would be lucky to be gone by midnight that day as it was slow going.
He also told us some other surprising home truths (or his Son did). There weren’t any genuine manx kippers any more- the local fish were too small and not worth catching, even if they were allowed to due to fishing restrictions. (I think he said that load he was smoking were Irish). Whilst the business was still called Moores, he bought it as a going concern ten years ago as a labour of love. Most kippers you buy are machine smoked and they just don’t taste as good as his oak smoked ones. (Karen said the wood chippings were a mixture of oak, pine and something else). They didn’t smoke every day, just enough to meet sales, much of which was over the internet. His bags of wood chippings were £7 each and he would typically use seven or eight of them for a smoking. His Son also had no current desire to go into the business, Karen overheard him telling another visitor.
Afterwards, we went into the shop and bought a pack of four Kipper fillets, being a regular kipper minus head and tail. These only took a minute in the microwave and we tried them for breakfast. I enjoyed mine but one was enough. karen and Dot ate about half of theirs whilst David was adamant that he didn’t want to have anything to do with them. The cottage smelt of kippers for another day or two afterwards!
Interestingly enough, a couple of days later we were back at Peel visiting a museum called the House of Manannan. Here they had a gallery devoted to kippers and a mock-up Moores factory. This gave us a chance to see the simulated kippers in the simulated chimney as the exhibit continued vertically over two levels.
Various thumbnails of the experience can be seen below, hover for words and click for a screen-size picture.
You can buy kippers from Moores at their online store.