The art of fish smoking

Humans have been smoking fish for many thousands of years. Originally as a means to preserve bountiful protein and avoid spoilage, the practice is still common amongst many Indigenous peoples around the world. In Australia, next to one of the largest and oldest known fish trap systems in the world at Lake Condah, the Gunditjmara peoples of southwestern Victoria would smoke eels in hollow logs, feeding a community of thousands of people throughout the year.

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In Northern Europe, the art of fish smoking gradually became more refined, with salt and smoke used primarily for flavouring and texture rather than preservation, resulting in the more subtle fine food product that we know today. In terms of preferred fish species for smoking, the oilier species are preferred, as the product must remain moist throughout the smoking process, which entails a certain amount of drying and weight loss.

At the Bay Smokehouse, we smoke our fish according to the traditional English technique, in kilns shipped over from Hull, UK. Founder and Head Smoker Damien Curtis studied under master smoker Ivan Jaines-White in Grimsby, the traditional heartland of fish smoking in Britain, where he was taught how to smoke a variety of fish species, both whole and filleted, in the traditional manner.

After brining the fish in sea salt, raw sugar and black peppercorns, the traditional English smoking technique involves air drying the fish for a short period of time, before then cold smoking it under low temperature and then slowly increasing the temperature until the fish is perfectly cooked. The result is a fish product that is denser than fresh fish, yet still moist and juicy, with a golden skin and an irresistible lightly smoked flavour.

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Whilst other species of smoked fish are very popular in Europe, such as smoked mackerel and smoked eel, nearly all of the smoked fish you find in Australia is Atlantic salmon and to a lesser degree farmed trout. Yet our coastal waters contain plenty of other suitably oily fish for smoking. These are delicious when smoked, as well as being sustainable, fast-growing fish species that are caught by local fishermen with minimal bycatch.

When it comes to mullet, it is an iconic Australian fish that has long deserved an image make-over. It has a similar oil content to salmon, and is delicious smoked and served as you would smoked salmon, but with a less ‘fishy’ taste.

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Indigenous coastal peoples in Australia generally rate mullet as their favourite fish, owing to its nutritional value, seasonal abundance and thick fillet. It is often eaten cooked over coals, its juicy and tender meat lightly smoked and charred. Thus, Indigenous Australians along the coast have a long history of connection with mullet, and its seasonal life cycles.

The negative Australian stereotypes of mullet, as ‘muddy’ and ‘only good for bait’, come from people eating the wrong type of upriver mullet (not sea mullet) and mullet that has not been handled correctly. Similar to other oily fish, such as tailor and mackerel, mullet needs to be eaten very fresh or smoked.