Renowned chef, food writer and restaurateur Mark Hix tells JO HARRIS about his passion for curing and smoking fish.
Mark Hix is known for championing British seasonal produce and his support of our British artisan producers has certainly not gone unnoticed, earning himself an MBE in 2017 for his services to hospitality. An author of 12 cookbooks, when the award-winning food writer is not out fishing, hosting foraging experiences, or running unique dinner parties from his Charmouth home, he is finding new and exciting produce, notably from the South West coast where he lives. Now, he is turning what was once a hobby into a thriving small business, bringing his passion for smoked fish to everyone’s doors.
“I didn’t have a lot of access to smoked fish growing up apart from the odd kipper and that yellow dyed haddock which I thought was the norm as a kid,” recalls Mark. “I was brought up by my grandparents, and my Gran used to make a sort of kedgeree which was certainly tasty and probably a great weaning dish for getting kids used to curry. Of course, I’ve brought her recipe into the modern day now using appropriate spices instead of generic curry powder, which I think she would have appreciated.
“Things have changed now though, and I’ve learnt a thing or two smoking my own fish at home. I’m still learning now. Although when I started, I did mess up a few batches of salmon and ended up cooking and smoking them until I worked out that the smoke needs to be below 20 degrees before entering the smoking chamber so with a bit of tweaking, I eventually got it right. On reflection that’s probably how hot smoked salmon or Bradan Rost came about.
“There are some fish that I wouldn’t put anywhere near the smoker. I wouldn’t smoke shellfish as they need to be left alone, but oily fish like sardines, anchovies, herring and mackerel take on smoking really well and retain the moisture, rather like canning does.
“I suppose back in the days pre-refrigeration, curing was a way of preserving and the smoking element was for flavouring. There wasn’t much creativity back then – just salt and smoke.
“When I opened my first solo restaurant in 2008 I wanted to have a signature dish that was exclusive to the place. I was fortunate to be given a Bradley smoker so I spoke to some of my friends with smokeries for advice on the best cure and wood chips to use. I used to smoke the salmon in my back garden for all of my restaurants and deliver it on the back of my scooter every day. Well, until a white van driver decided to reverse over my foot, which was when I had a bit of a rethink on my delivery methods!
“When I had a restaurant within London’s Selfridges store, I moved the smoker to the roof there. It became the most central (and highest!) smoker in the city, at the time. I even sold it in the food hall back then. Fast forward 14 years and I am still smoking fish in my garden in Charmouth for The Oyster & Fish House, my Lyme Regis restaurant.
“But with so much demand for my smoked salmon from guests at the restaurant, I thought it was time to create my own range that people could enjoy no matter where they were in the country. When it comes to working on collaborations, I like to keep it local of course. So I contacted Chesil Smokery which is just 20 minutes away from me in Bridport.
“Chesil Smokery is a great local smokery with their own trout farm. All of the fish sent to the smokery is caught off the South West coast – apart from the salmon of course, which is responsibly sourced from Scotland – and sent straight from the fishing boat to the smokery, just ten miles inland from The Oyster & Fish House.
“I had been trying out lots of different techniques with different produce such as cod’s roe and my home-cured bacon. I even started smoking tomatoes and squash for my vegan neighbour! But the range I settled on with Chesil was anchovies, sardines, salmon, herrings, haddock and hot-smoked mackerel. Of course, the range will change throughout the year depending on what is in season.”
Chesil Smokery was founded in 2011 when Mark and Fiona Firth rescued and restored Bridport’s Smokery. A family-run business, they take the finest responsibly sourced fish, cure it in salt and brown sugar and then gently smoke it over oak and apple wood.
Mark says: “Chesil Smokery is a great local smokery with their own trout farm. I have known Mark Firth, the owner, for many years and enjoyed eating their products over the years, so it seemed a natural fit to start my smoking range with him and his team.”
How to slice your salmon
Why do people insist on slicing their smoked salmon at an angle, and wafer thin, wonders Mark, who explains: “I always slice my salmon on an almost straight cut. That way you get all the flavour of the smoke in every bite. I like to slice it about 5mm thick for the same reason. I never serve my salmon with anything other than a piece of buttered soda bread on the side. I never understand why you would want to smother that delicious smokey flavour with lemon.
“Make sure you have a sharp knife, and let it gently glide through the salmon. The key to perfectly carving any fish or meat is a quality, sharp knife.”