The fire alarm is shrieking. While acrid smoke consumes the kitchen I am perched awkwardly on the counter waving a tea towel beneath the flashing light, in a frantic attempt to quell the sound. As it falls silent I fantasise about an outdoor smoke house replete with smoking hooks and temperature controls, or a modern ceramic smoker for the yard, to stuff full of oak shavings and cook meat slowly over the lowest of heat, although at this stage I would settle for a functioning extractor fan. I am smoking chicken in a wok, Chinese style, and have accidentally allowed oxygen into the system, causing the rice to burst into flames. In the interests of full disclosure, the ‘system’ is not the most sophisticated, comprising a sushi rack suspended over a pan full of rice and tea leaves, the lot swathed in tin foil. The result of this flimsy structural integrity is fragrant smoke bellowing throughout the house, an otherwise pleasant sensation dulled by the alarm’s protest.
My amateur smoking attempt typifies the perpetual struggle of smoking food, or grain for whisky. A delicate balance must be maintained. Enough gentle heat must develop to steadily cook or dry while also maintaining a slow and even smoulder in order to neatly coat the food or grain in a layer of tasty smoke particles. Too much heat will overdo the food or grain before the smoke has a chance to do its work. It is also important to avoid the loss of the flammable phenols and volatiles, so that they are simply set free from the solid fuel and propelled upward in a puff of air, carrying with them the flavour that we associate with smoke.
This delicate balancing act occurs daily in the perfumed maltings at Bowmore on Islay. The kiln operator constantly tends the fires below the kiln, stoking and bellowing in an industrial tableaux that seems borrowed from a bygone era. There is great skill to peating including maintaining the proportion of ‘caff’ (the fine dust) to dry peat, and the seemingly perpetual adjusting of the oxygen flow via the kiln door to maintain the correct draught. It is an extremely tactile process. It is the job of men, not machines. When I was last at Bowmore, we wandered around inside the cavernous kiln during the process. The heat of the drying smoke could be felt through the grain. It radiated through the soles of my shoes. Suddenly, the smoke was everywhere, puffing through the grain at first, mingling with the sweet cereal aroma and then later, a fragrant haze, thick and earthy, a reminder that despite the later heady stages of distillation, whisky is a product that is very much of the land.
It is posited that man has smoked food as long as we have harnessed fire to warm ourselves. The likelihood is that early man hung food in his chimneyless dwelling in order to keep it out of the reach of animals who might pilfer it for themselves. We assume that smoke from the fire would have coated the food’s surface and imparted a smoky flavour. Along the way someone was bound to notice that food hung this way tasted delicious, lasted longer without spoiling and was not very attractive to bugs, with the smoke forming a repellant layer over the food. Traditions of smoking developed in each civilisation with the smoke coming from whatever was the prevalent fuel for example, hardy mesquite in the south of America, the resinous manuka in New Zealand, tea and rice in China and dried sheep dung in parts of Iceland.
Back in my kitchen I am sitting amongst the dissipating fog, enjoying my lightly charred chicken and marvelling at the romance of smoke. It is more than simply the sensory beauty: the hiss and crackle of peat turfed onto a kiln fire, the first rising blue whisps or the glorious smell. There is a greater magic to it, an alchemy. Wood smoke is the release of the energy bound inside the tree, the product of the sunshine and water that grew it. With only a millimetre of growth a year, to burn peat is to release the layers of thousands of years of history trapped within within its tarry black core: the decayed grasses, heathers and animal cells, the very distillation of that place throughout history. It’s the very essence of the earth that we are drinking when we enjoy smoky whisky.
Tea smoked salmon
As in smoking grain for whisky with peat, wood or tea smoke clings more readily to a damp tacky surface. Thus it is important to cultivate a pellicle (or skin) pre-smoking. I use salt. In addition salting draws water from the fish and creates a firm flesh that once smoked yields into flakes.EQUIPMENT
- Roasting tray or large heavy pot
- Tin foil
- A rack slightly larger than the roasting tray/pot
- Oil for rack
- 300g salmon fillet, skinned
- 90g white rice
- 30g tea (black, flavoured and smoked all work)
- 100g brown sugar
- Crushed sea salt (do not use table salt)
- Optional aromatics: star anise, cinnamon, cloves, lemon rind, fennel
Rub each side of the salmon fillet with salt, two teaspoons or so. 2.
Leave aside for one hour at room temperature. 3.
Line the roasting tray entirely with foil.4.
Mix sugar, rice and tea together and place in the bottom of the lined tray in an even layer.5.
Suspend oiled rack over top of the roasting tray and place salmon in centre of rack.6.
Cover the entire tray with tin foil, this will take several layers. Make sure there are no gaps. 7.
Fire up the barbecue or stove top and place on medium direct heat for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the salmon. My salmon was less than 5cm thick and It was done in 10 minutes. 8.
Remove from heat using oven mitts and take to a well-aerated space. Remove foil, letting smoke escape in a dramatic fashion and gently remove smoked salmon from the rack.
Serve with crushed new potatoes, peas and lemon oil with a dram of Laphraoig Quarter Cask or Connemara 12.