Grimsby Smoked Fish - Gastro Obscura

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Grimsby Smoked Fish

Five producers in one English seaside town use historic chimneys to cold-smoke salmon and haddock overnight.

The seaport of Grimsby, along the Lincolnshire coast of England, was once a very busy fishing port. In the 1930s, there were nearly 80 smokehouses in the town. Inside, artisans hand-filleted and cold-smoked fresh cod and haddock in tall brick chimneys over smoldering sawdust. The finished product—smoky, salty, and with a hue that ranged from creamy to beige—enhanced fishcakes and kedgerees across the nation.

Technology and conflict entered the picture in the decades that followed. The 1940s saw the invention of electric kilns, complete with electric fans and heaters. Smoking time decreased, prices dropped, and quantities surged. Traditional producers that relied on the slow, overnight process of cold-smoking couldn’t compete. The fish market took another hit when the Cod Wars, or Þorskastríðin (“the cod strife,” in Icelandic) began between England and Iceland. A series of four confrontations that occurred between 1958 and 1976, the wars resulted in England’s loss of access to fish-rich waters around the Nordic island nation. For many British trawlers, the damage was irreparable.

Today, five traditional smokehouses remain stationed on the Grimsby Fish Docks. Enter the Grimsby Traditional Fish Smokers (GTFS). This union of long-standing local businesses banded together to preserve the superior taste and quality of traditionally-smoked fish. They brine fillets (primarily haddock, after the Cod Wars), hang the fish on stainless steel rods, and smoke it overnight, just as their ancestors did. The tarry, historic chimneys—which ensure cold-smoking and prevent flaking by allowing air in—waft more than a century’s worth of smoke. Experienced smokers use touch to determine when the fish is ready.

After ten years of advocating, the GTFS group was awarded Protected Geographical Indication by the European Union for Traditional Grimsby Smoked Fish in 2009. Only fish smoked in Grimsby can bear the title, but based on the process and infrastructure required to make it, imitators would be hard-pressed to re-create this fish.

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