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“I think the look of it puts people off,” says Darren Spink. “There’s the skin and tail, there’s a lot of bones, it’s not obvious what it is. It takes a bit of time to dissect, too—but that’s half the fun.”
Looks can be deceptive.
It might not be as famous as smoked salmon, single malt or even Haggis—but it’s every bit as delicious, and its home is Arbroath, just over 10 miles up the coast from Dundee. Spink’s parents run G&A Spink, a fish merchants in the town, so he knows better than most what the secret of a good Smokie is.
“You need [to start with] a thick haddock, it shouldn’t be too thin,” he says. “At this time of year, towards Easter, the haddock starts to spawn so it’s not ideal for Smokies. If there’s more flesh, it tends to smoke a lot better; if its too thin, it dries out a lot.”
100 year recipe
The process for making Smokies hasn’t changed in over 100 years. They’re cleaned and salted (“That creates a thick skin, it protects the fish,” says Spink), dried and then tied in pairs and hung over a stick. Next comes the smoking, for just over half an hour, in an oak-fired brick oven dug into the ground. The oven is covered to keep the smoke and heat in. “It needs to be pretty intense to give it the right flavour,” says Spink.
Naturally enough, Arbroath Smokies are on the menu at Tailend. “We don’t do too much with it,” says Spink. “If you heat it for too long you can dry it out, so we try and warm it through with some butter, just to baste, for five or six minutes. You don’t want to lose the moisture, the juicy nature of it. We serve it with some lemon.”
The future of Arboath Smokies
It’s the definition of simplicity, but the result—rich, moist and deeply smoky—is absolutely delicious. So why aren’t Arbroath Smokies better known outside this corner of Scotland?
It goes back to the way they look, Spink believes. But G&A Spink—run by his parents Gordon and Aileen for 35 years—has a plan.
“We’re looking to introduce a range of flaked Smokies,” he says. “Maybe people will prefer that; they’ll be sold vacuum-packed and already processed, with the bones removed. At the moment we sell mainly in Scotland and sometimes in London, but smoked fish has a good shelf life—about two weeks—so it is suitable for export.”
Growing fame of Tailend
Tailend Dundee, which opened in February 2017, is well-known for the quality of its seafood and was recently named one of the UK’s 20 best in the National Fish and Chip awards. It’s only natural that much of its business is fish and chips, but Spink says customers are increasingly happy to try new things.
“We have regulars who come in once a week, and once a month they’ll try something different, for example,” he says. “We’re focused on getting the fish and chips right. We don’t want to be too fancy for Dundee.
“That has to be a priority, but we want to do stuff that’s a bit different, too—like a smoked haddock arancini, or scallop dishes. We’ve got lobster on special at the moment. We try and do different things on top [of fish and chips] to help us stand out.”
It’s an exciting time for Dundee, with the new Victoria and Albert Museum set to open later this year. “It’s really exciting, you can feel it about the place,” says Spink. It should mean plenty of new visitors to the city; those who want to get a real taste of this part of Scotland would be well-advised head for Tailend Dundee, where they’ll find a local speciality that makes up in flavour what it might lack in looks.