Ómós Digest #84 The King (and Queen) of Wild Fish.
By Cúán Greene.
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It’s been a while since I wrote an article about an expedition. In truth, it’s articles like these that drove me to begin the Ómós Digest in the first place. Through my profession (as a chef), I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity, this ‘way in’ to wonderful people like Sally Barnes and her community, who you will meet in this article, on a regular basis and to be able to share this information with you along the way. Your support has allowed me to interact with many more amazing people, and bring on writers, expanding the wonderful community further. While on this very detour to West Cork, I managed to detour thrice more, visiting a local cheese maker. En route, I stopped off in the village bakery of Schull. While meandering by the pastries, I noticed the baker staring at me with intent. Either they thought I was a sweet-toothed burglar to be wary of, or they were planning to introduce themselves. Thankfully it was the latter. What materialised here was another hour-long conversation and tour of the beautiful bakery at Arran Street East. This baker reads the Digest; they told me how many of our articles on hospitality they had related to, and that it was refreshing to see people write openly about their experiences. If I’m honest, this is a regular occurrence. I have often been approached by Ómós subscribers, many of whom I have never met before. It's a humbling experience. By being open and honest, we reach deeper into people’s lives, forming overwhelming levels of trust and relationships. Since the birth of this open dialogue, where we expound upon both the very best, and the worst aspects of our food industry, we have been able to give people a sense of hope and belonging they otherwise may have been missing.
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Is there craft in your life?
My car was pointed West. I was travelling to Dingle, a mystical coastal town on the Kerry Peninsula. Engulfed by both the great Kerry mountain range and the fierce Atlantic ocean, the colourful architecture makes Dingle feel straight out of a Disney film, albeit one steeped in Irish cultural heritage. Headed West, it occurred to me that if I was going this far it would be a waste not to make the detour to visit Sally Barnes. Sally is a famous Scotswoman and “wild smoked salmon lady”, based in West Cork. I had heard so much about her, a true champion of Irish food, but had never had the chance to meet her or taste her most prized product; in fact, I had never once had the honour of sampling the King of Fish. Little did I know, this detour would add three hours to my trip, most of which I would spend firmly stuck behind a truck. This is the story of my life. That is, travelling to meet craftspeople I have never met, in the hopes of striking up a relationship and gaining insight into what they do and why they do it.
Back in the 1970-80s, there was a mass migration to West Cork. At the time, Thatcherism was a great threat to British society and the alarming dangers of Sellafield saw hordes of British youth packing up and leaving the UK in search of a new home. These hopeful youths were joined by German mavericks and Dutch non-conformists, all looking to their near neighbouring Ireland to escape their urban lifestyles and find a new culture and pace of life.
They found one on the very edge of Europe, but not without local scepticism. The sleepy and mainly agricultural western region of county Cork soon found itself making room for this new community, with their alternative lifestyle and outlook on society. They came with strange haircuts and daft clothing, seeking employment, creating new jobs, and building unusually fabricated homes in unusually remote locations. They brought with them an appreciation of craft foods, sustainability, and new ways of looking at the world. It took time, but eventually these “hippies'' became a positive influence on the locals, their kids and grandkids intermarrying with the “natives.”
Now bear in mind, as I drove, I was acutely aware that I am someone that Sally knows zilch about. Would she see me as someone in search of something, with little to give? For all she knew, I was the health and safety brigade (known in our industry as the “no craic brigade”) in disguise, keen to dismantle her 40 year business. But, I parked these thoughts and told myself the detour would be worth it. This is something I have come to learn: no-one really cares what you do, despite how self-important you may perceive yourself. As long as you are kind, worrying about what people think of you is a complete waste of time.
Sally was no different from others in this regard. She’s brushed me off in the past, excusing herself from a number of suggested encounters due to high levels of seasonal work. In fact, an hour before my arrival she announced that she was unavailable. However my persistence prevailed, and she reluctantly agreed to meet me for 30 minutes. So I drove like the clappers, twisting and turning through the West Cork back roads, eventually arriving at her home and her famous Woodcock Smokery. Chefs note: Sally doesn’t smoke woodcock, only fish and cigarettes.
It was evening time when I arrived at Woodcock Smokery, just outside of Skibbereen near Tragumna beach, where Sally met an English fisherman and set up shop in 1979. Sally herself greeted me at the door, dressed in her long white hygiene jacket, sleeves rolled up, obviously still at work. She looked a little surprised when I arrived alone. Asking me in her ever-present Scottish accent, where were the rest? She was expecting a whole gang, an army of chefs perhaps? She looked at me relieved and announced I could stay as long as I wanted. And so I did.
We started the visit with Sally showing me through her workshop, a wonderful wooden structure built by Max Jones, Kyle Huamali, and Sally, where she teaches classes on how to fillet and smoke fish. We entered the smokery itself, a room decked with enormous steel ovens the length of a tall man, where fillets of wild salmon were gently smoking on racks, the walls black with character, evidence of years of work. The oven is fed by smoke from smouldering beechwood, which imparts a sweet smoky aroma throughout both the fish and the room.
“Salmon are the perfect indicator of water quality.” - Sally Barnes.
I was keen to learn about Sally’s practice of smoking wild salmon, and how it had changed over the years. While her practice of smoking fish itself is much the same - in fact, it’s a borrowed technique passed on over centuries - the quality and the quantity of salmon has changed drastically over the years. Sally sighs and points to the fat of the belly of the fish as she explains.
These changes are largely due to overfishing, water pollution (a by-product of chemical waste from run-off of farms and illegal dumping) and climate change, as well as the effect of disease associated with fish farming practices. When Sally started out, the Blackwater River (where the salmon are still caught) had healthy fish stocks. Together with pollution, and the fact that non-controlled salmon are being pocketed by Anglers, is really testing the commercial fishermen's livelihood. Sally now has a quota she must adhere to each year (three times less than those of the Anglers). It’s a paltry amount that tests the financial implications of her practice in favour of a sport, and with that, a tradition that is quickly dying out. Her smoked salmon were once sold for 20 Irish pounds a side, today they fetch upwards of €200. Needless to say, Sally’s smoked Albacore tuna, mackerel and haddock are far more affordable.
After relentless questions and sincere interest in her craft, Sally invited me into her house for a cup of tea. If Dingle is a town out of Disney, Sally’s home kitchen is a portal to fantasy.
So Sally, what fish should we be eating?
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