If you’re a Yank like me, kippers are only something you’ve read about in P.G. Wodehouse novels. But when I traveled to Whitby, England — a seaside town on the east coast of North Yorkshire — to research this article on Bram Stoker and Dracula, I was delighted to visit one of the last independent kipper smokehouses in England.
“Kippers are herring that have been split, brined and cold smoked,” says Derek Brown (pictured above, left) who, together with his brother, Barry (above, right), continues Fortune’s Kippers, a family business begun in 1872. The oily fish were once bountiful in the North Sea, and smoking was a way of preserving them without refrigeration.
During Whitby’s 19th-century fishing heyday, small smokehouses dotted the town, and ran along the coast. But when Yorkshire herring fishing died out in the late 1970s, the smokehouses followed. Fortune’s is one the last independent smokehouses in England, and these days they use fish from the Northeast Atlantic, frozen at sea. “It’s easier because the supply is constant,” says Derek. “During our busy season” — around the Christmas holidays — “we just ring up and request an extra delivery.”
The fish are defrosted overnight, split, gutted, cleaned, and then placed in a salt water brine for forty minutes. “It’s just salt and water. No seasonings,” says Derek. The fish are then hung in the 90-year-old smokehouse (photo above—it’s the black structure to the right of the cottage) for 18-24 hours.
Inside the smokehouse (photo above), three different fires cure the fish. “The first dries them out,” says Derek. “The second is a heavy fire. We use oak shavings and it burns through the night. If needed, a third fire finishes them off for the color.”
Industrially produced kippers are often dyed orange. “If they’re made in the traditional way, the longer you smoke a kipper, the darker it gets,” says Derek. But it’s a fine line between achieving a golden color and overcooking. “You maintain the oil of the fish by not smoking it too much.”
Kippers are traditionally a breakfast food (they’re especially popular on Christmas morning), eaten simply with bread or butter. “They can be eaten cold,” says Derek. “But they’re better heated up. Fried or grilled,”(that’s Brit-speak for broiled) “or jump them in boiling water.” The latter method is known as a jugged kipper and the doyenne of British food, Delia Smith, describes it thusly: “All you do is remove the heads, then fold the sides of the fish together and pack vertically in a tall warmed jug. Now pour in enough boiling water to cover the kippers, put a lid or plate on top of the jug, and leave them in a warm place for 6 minutes. Then drain and dry them with kitchen paper, and serve on hot plates with a knob of butter to melt over each fish.”
Along with whole and fileted kippers, Fortune’s also offers kipper pâté—”kipper filets and double cream, prepared by my niece” says Derek—which is smokey and delicious on rye bread. They sell only from the shop and don’t ship, but if you are lucky enough to visit Whitby (which is worth a visit), they’re open seven days a week. Word to the wise—get there early. When they sell out of kippers, they close up for the day.
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