A fishy tale, food ethics and taking up smoking
I'm going to start this one with a little tale of woe so please bear with me while I outline the issues. This morning I've been fishing, which in itself is a fine way to spend the day. I often think that if more people went and caught their own fish from time to time, they would have a good deal more understanding and respect for this valuable food source.
So why the tale of woe? Well it certainly wasn't from the lack of catching. I was telephoned by a friend who keeps a little fishing on a Devonshire river who asked me, if I had any free time, to go and fish his beat, as there had been, as he put it, "a bit of a mishap at a local trout farm".
This friend of mine is a master of understatement, as a little research showed that over 1,500 fish had escaped during the flooding and were now decimating the river of its natural life by devouring everything in sight.
I don't usually eat farmed trout, because as a rule they are fed mostly on fishmeal pellets that are made from tiny marine fish caught just for that purpose. I won't bore you with too many facts on that count, but suffice to say, that practice is to be frowned upon in the main. That said, I did recently try some excellent quality farmed rainbow trout from Stream Farm in the Mendip Hills, where they use an organic system and feed made from the waste fish from processing plants and bi-catch, and I have to say, I was very impressed by its quality and flavour.
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So, you see my problem. On the one hand, these fish are destroying the balance of the local ecosystem and probably beginning to starve due to there now being way too many predatory fish in the river system; on the other, these fish were almost certainly raised on a diet of fish that should still be growing in the sea.
I decided that it would be better, now that these fish were causing trouble in the river, to go and catch a few... but that if I did so, I'd have to eat them so it wouldn't be a waste.
Waste is one of the worst things that can ever happen to food. That's why, although I rarely shop in a supermarket, if I am forced to by circumstance or necessity, then I will focus my spending on the reduced section on the basis it is likely to be thrown away if it doesn't get sold that day.
So, to cut a long story short, I find myself in the kitchen at home staring at six very decent rainbow trout and wondering what on earth I am going to do with them. Time to get busy.
Ultimately, fresh fish like this need to be eaten raw; well, at least some of it at any rate. After skinning and filleting these interlopers, I have myself a midday breakfast of rainbow trout sashimi with soy, pickled ginger and wasabi paste and, I have to say, it works very well indeed. Traditionally this dish is prepared with raw blue fin tuna (let's not even go there) or farmed salmon (again I will spare you a rant), but it works well with line-caught mackerel almost as well as it did with the trout. However, not even I can eat six trouts' worth of sashimi before it goes past the point of being fresh enough, so I have to think of a few other ideas.
The first thought is to freeze the fillets, but I know from bitter experience that you need to freeze fresh fish very fast indeed and the old domestic freezer is no match for an industrial blast. So, it's far better to turn the fish into something cooked and freeze that instead.
The old grey cells start to chunter away and some old favourites spring to mind. Fish cakes? Fish pie? Both of these would work well but I don't have the time to make the sauce and mash, so I decide to hot-smoke the fillets.
Now, you can't just take some fish, bung it in the smoker with some wood chips and expect to get great results. Anything you wish to smoke you should cure first, and to do this I simply sprinkle table salt with gay abandon over the rosy flesh of the fish. I leave them for ten minutes or so and then rinse in cool, clean water and pat dry with a tea towel. You need to cure any meat or fish you're going to smoke to firm up the flesh, remove some moisture from it and also create a way for the smoke to permeate the flesh and make it truly tasty.
Next, I simply season the fillets with a little cracked pepper and fire up the hot smoker outside on a gas stove – you can do it in the house if you like the smell and really want to upset your other half...
Once the fish is in the smoker and the oak chips start to smoulder, turn the heat down a little and leave well alone for about ten minutes. As this is hot smoking, the fish cooks at the same time as it smokes, and you should end up with lots of tasty smoked trout.
There is a very simple difference between hot and cold smoking and that is the temperature at which the product is smoked. The more subtle difference is in the cure.
It's fair to say that most cold smoking is done with a much longer cure, so the meat or fish is cured hard all the way through, and the smoking really then becomes a final note. Most cold smoking cures involve some sugar and spices to add another layer to the flavour and avoid making things taste too salty.
Out of the smoker it comes, and so tasty it looks that you simply have to try a little. At this point you need to be firm with yourself because you'll be tempted to eat the lot there and then. But here is just where the fun starts and you can really go to town with your own home-smoked trout.
There's lots you can do with a bit of fresh smoked fish. For a quick, simple and tasty supper, simply boil some pasta and stir in some flakes of fish and a big glug of olive oil, finish with some chopped wild garlic and you will be very satisfied with the result.
Try the old rarebit treatment: make a white sauce, stir in some mustard, cheese and flaked smoked fish, allow to cool, spread on toast and grill until golden and bubbling.
Smoked trout paté: much easier than it sounds. Just mix flakes of the fish with creme fraiche, chopped chives, paprika and a little nutmeg.
Watercress and smoked trout salad with horseradish? Smoked trout and potato fritters? I leave it up to you, but remember two things: care about where your fish comes from and don't be afraid to start smoking – it's the other kind that's bad for your health.
Tim is running wild food day courses at River Cottage and half-day taster courses at Otterton Mill. Visit www.ottertonmill.com and www.rivercottage.net/shop for full details.