‘We check the eyes, the gills, the firmness of the meat’: the art of smoking fish in Grimsby

Grimsby’s fish dock is dotted with faded signs on weathered brickwork, and the distinctive, pointed chimneys that tell visitors they’ve reached the home of traditional Grimsby smoked fish. Like Melton Mowbray pork pies and Dundee cake, this celebrated product has been afforded protected geographical indication status – which means only cod and haddock that’s been traditionally cold-smoked in this particular corner of north-east Lincolnshire can claim the name.

Among the seven producers of this smoked fish is Cook & Lucas, which supplies haddock to Charlie Bigham’s, the oven-ready food company, which uses it in its best-selling fish pies.

“This is a traditional smokehouse, housed in a listed building, and our chimneys have been running for over 100 years,” says Cook & Lucas’s technical manager, Radoslaw Wiatr, 38. “Charlie Bigham [the man behind the company that bears his name] is a great lover of traditional methods of making food. He could go somewhere else and buy his smoked fish a lot cheaper, but that’s just not the way he does things.”

  • Cook & Lucas is one of seven smokehouses producing traditional Grimsby smoked fish

In keeping with Bigham’s good-food philosophy, Cook & Lucas’s haddock is chimney-smoked – as opposed to being cured in modern kilns, as most fish is today – using expertise honed over decades.

Fresh fish, certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, is bought from Grimsby’s fish-auction market, or direct from fishing waters in Iceland and Norway. It then goes through rigorous quality checks at the smokehouse – “We check the eyes, the gills, the firmness of the meat” – before being brined in saltwater for between six and eight minutes, a process that requires an expert eye to get it right.

The fish are hung out on specialist rods called speats – then it’s time for the smokers to wait for the wind. “We have eight chimneys, which can smoke up to 500 kilos of fish each at a time,” Wiatr says. “We need wind to stoke the embers, but if it’s blowing too strongly through the chimneys, it can start a fire, so we usually smoke at night, when the wind is calmer.”

  • Once the fish are loaded on to speats, it’s time to wait for the right wind

The speats are suspended between the chimney walls, from top to bottom, above smouldering oak chips. “We use German wood chips, partly because it’s traditional, and partly because they create a better flavour,” Wiatr says.

The fish is cold-smoked overnight for 10 to 12 hours, with cool fresh air being allowed to mingle with the smoke to keep the temperature down so the fish doesn’t cook. The tar coating on the chimney walls, achieved over the past 100-plus years, creates a unique, smoky flavour that can’t be produced in a kiln.

The fish is then packed, chilled, and shipped, with the order arriving promptly at Charlie Bigham’s kitchens each week. “The time between the fish being caught from the sea and delivered is a maximum of five days,” Wiatr says. “That means when it gets to Charlie, the product is at its very best.”

Bigham uses this distinctively flavoured, beautifully smoky haddock to make his fish pies, which are filled with haddock, cod and salmon, covered in a spinach and parsley sauce, and topped with creamy mash and a crunchy cheddar and breadcrumb topping. Deliciously warming, these pies are Bigham’s bestseller, and can be cooked and ready to eat in just 35 minutes.

“My philosophy has always been to take dishes that people are familiar with, and make them the very best,” says Bigham. “One of the reasons we chose to make a fish pie is because not everybody wants to cook fish at home from scratch. So we decided to make fish pie, with proper ingredients and in the proper way, to produce something absolutely delicious. And it really is a lovely dish – it’s just such a great combination of ingredients.”

Meanwhile, Wiatr is deeply proud that his smokehouse has been chosen for a starring role in Bigham’s most popular dish.

“We choose our customers because of who they are, and what they represent,” he says. “When Charlie came to see us, everybody loved him – he’s a really nice guy – and nobody can deny that he does great stuff when it comes to his food, and the way he treats his employees, too. His fish pie is a great product, so it’s important to us, and to the traditions of Grimsby, that he chose us. We’re really very proud.”

Crushed peas with mint and garlic – tasty with fish pie

Prep 30 min (plus defrosting time)
Serves 4

500g frozen garden peas, defrosted and drained in a colander
50g butter, softened
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 shallots, finely diced
1 bunch fresh mint, chopped
Salt and black pepper

Mix the crushed garlic with the butter and set aside.

Add half of the peas to a food processor and roughly blend – you want a crushed texture, not a smooth puree.

Place a saucepan over a moderate heat and add the garlic butter. When it’s bubbling, gently saute the shallots for a few minutes.

Add the whole and blended peas to the pan along with the chopped mint. Stir for a few minutes until the peas are evenly heated through. Season to taste.

Even the best home cooks take the occasional shortcut, and that’s where Charlie Bigham’s warming pies and puds come into their own. With everything from fish pie to bakewell pud, who can resist?