The lore of how our ancestors invented food smoking will, sadly, forever stay unwritten and untold. We can’t hope to retrace this technique to its accidental cavemen discoverers – or relive their excitement, though some primal dancing and howling at each other weren’t much to miss out on.
What we can relate to is the first taste, because we inevitably tasted something smoked for the first time in our own lives. It probably began with a stiff sniff and twisted nose – am I supposed to eat this? – before the silver of fish, meat or vegetable made contact with your palate, and the grace notes of wood-smoked and cured flavours trilled above the ingredient’s originality.
For some of us, there may not be instant affection; but we must all admit that there’s something ethereal about it, as though smoked food is just ordinary food – except smothered by every hand of every mythological deity of every ancient civilisation.
For me, my gastronomic peripherals have always been drawn to techniques that elevate ingredients beyond conventional, instant stovetop cooking; and tasting smoked salmon as a child was what sowed the fishbone that miraculously sprouted a tree of curiosity.
Which is shameful, on my part, that I didn’t look into the art of smoking until recently. Nowadays, armed with a cold smoke generator, an IKEA box and an acute desire not to burn my balcony down, I keep a nano operation in my London flat producing this and that, primarily as offerings at EATS Club. Nothing fanciful or boastful.
Or, at least, it’s crushingly dwarfed by an actual, purpose-built smokehouse – and my knowledge and experience in smoking hopelessly outmatched by a professional smoker.
Not that I came to Ummera Smokehouse to capitulate under a higher authority: I was there to play the diligent student.
Even as we rolled up the gravelled driveway after an hour drive from Cork did I feel my arrogance shrivel; the scenery alone was making my ‘factory’ feel amateur: Irish lush, with the brook gargling softly behind the tree line. If the gods wanted to stroke the meat in exquisite seclusion, this is where they would be instead of my unsightly balcony.
Metaphors aside, Ummera Smokehouse is where Anthony Creswell breathes a second life to his smoked creations. A second-generation business inherited from his father, it’s under his ownership that the wooden structure storing, smoking and distributing Ummera’s products was built in 2000 and operates today.
Before inviting us into his workshop and, as breathless as I was to see, the smoker, Anthony began his introduction to the production cycle with a glimpse of the storage: an icy cabinet, trolleys stacked full with plastic-wrapped frozen salmon fillets. Not quite the romanticism of backyard-plucked fish as I’d imagined.
And there’s a reason behind it, Anthony explained.
Irish wild salmon stock had plummeted so drastically in the past several decades, that the government acted by imposing limits on the fishery. Farmed salmon, the immediate alternative, had yet to get a foothold in Ireland – or establish the standard of quality and sustainability – to rival the industries of the likes of Scotland and Norway, where many smokehouses opted to source their key ingredient from instead.
“Irish” smoked salmon was losing its integral identity, from an Irish birth to an Irish smoking production.
Eventually, however, the farmed salmon industry in Ireland did catch up; and when it did, when the salmon’s living condition yielded no less than satisfactory standards – no less than passing Anthony’s verdict to bring the Irish back to Ummera’s farmed salmon supplies.
The journey then forks: water or powder.
For the salmon, after it’s thawed, deboned and cleaned, a bath: in a salty-sweet brine infused with a host of “ingredients”. Not that Anthony was going to divulge the concoction’s secret; but he did emphasise that this curing incubates the subliminal flavours of the fish married to the smokiness – not to mention preserving it. Note taken and zealously underlined.
Slabs of pork belly, squatting behind the brine-filled tubs in the walk-in fridge, underwent a different process of the same significance: spices and dried herbs rubbed onto their surfaces, along with the salt drawing out moisture and concentrating the meat’s flavours.
Then unseen but mentioned, the poultry gets the equivalent treatment – except with some diversification in the rub’s recipes.
After a day or two of nurturing, the meats were extracted from their respective cures and cleansed before the headline act. Either placed on racks or hung on meat hooks, they enter the steel cabinet striated with amber streaks; the inside of the cavity was pulsing with burnt-wood aromas, circulated by in-built fans.
This is where the magic really happens: the nativity scene for a Promethean rebirth.
Seeing the functioning contraption also lends understanding to anyone novice to the principles of hot- and cold-smoking.
Whole logs aflame and asphyxiating whole furnace-like rooms, scorching heat-aromatised fumes onto smoked goods and fully cooking them in the process; that’s hot-smoking. What we had in front of us in Ummera’s workshop was a cold-smoker, just like my own: kept to ambient temperature (20-30°C), the meats are smeared with caramelised smoke particles generated by cindering wood dust – more compact and starved of oxygen, therefore burning more gently; the intensity of smoky flavours are controlled by the amount of time meats are exposed to this constant airbrushing, often lasting hours to even overnight.
Demystified, the art of smoking isn’t a difficult process overall – and easily replicable even on my London balcony – yet the craft and attention instill a whole dimension of complexity; there’s no getting it right other than creating the conditions for chemical reactions to occur, but even those are simply compositions of ingredients that give flavour profiles unique to each smoker’s imagination and practices.
The way smoked meats are produced – nay, birthed – at Ummera Smokehouse by Anthony Creswell, even when wood smoke has smothered our fingers and palates for tens of thousands of years, is uniqueness of its own. Its secret recipes, much like the invention of smoking itself, may not be entrusted to many living memories; but as long as the techniques and appreciation live on, smoked foods will continue to coexist alongside humanity.
I finally tried some of Anthony’s smoked salmon and duck breasts on the way out. They were, quite simply, beautiful. But, on a subliminal context, they reminded me of just how holistic food is.
Even if smoked salmon may appear to be a singular produce, countless other components all played a part in piecing it together: from the brine and spices and wood smoke, to the Irish water and feeds the salmon dwelled in.