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I used to fish in the River Mole when I was growing up. During the summer and winter months I would sit by the water’s edge, rigging a fishing line and trying to catch anything I could. One of the most rewarding things about fishing is being able to keep what you have caught, cooking it yourself and sharing it with the people close to you. I’ve always wanted to smoke my own salmon and trout – it’s easily the tastiest way to prepare it.
Sadly, as I grew up, I began to fish less and less. I went off to university before settling in my current house share in New Cross in South East London.
In my twenties, I swapped freshwater salmon for pints of ale. Most of my weekends before the Covid-19 pandemic would involve a boozy trip to the pub with my friends. It wasn’t uncommon for us to get through six or seven pints a night when we got going. Looking back on it now, going out was a really big part of my life. I’d spend around £70 to £100 every week, depending on how mad the night got.
When Covid-19 rolled around and all the pubs shut down, I started to notice that the money I would have spent on drinks was now staying firmly in my bank account. With all the pubs closed, and none of my income being spent on pricey London lunches, I went from being able to squirrel away just ten per cent of my salary each month, to saving 50 per cent of it. But not being able to go out with my pals on the weekend also meant I was able to rekindle a lost childhood passion: to build my very own salmon smoker.
As a solitary pursuit, fishing was one of the first activities people were allowed to resume when the lockdown was first eased in May. The very first thing I did with my savings was become a member of a river in Kent – just a one hour drive from London. After being shut inside for such a long time, it was idyllic to be out in the countryside, in a place where you couldn’t even hear any cars. I would stand in the water, sometimes so deep that it would come up to my chest. In April, when I was put furloughed from my job as a financial events marketer, I would just go down there in the morning for a day and come back in near darkness, usually with a few fish for my housemates.
For the first time in my life, I had both the disposable income and the time to pursue the dream. If I could make it work, I could potentially turn my hobby into a business. So I went to Deptford Market with my savings in hand to try and snatch a bargain on the tools and materials I needed to build a smoker. Not having much money beyond what lockdown had given me, I knew I had to build it on a budget. My dad had bought me a drill for Christmas last year, so I was already halfway there. I was able to nab a workbench for less than a tenner and I bought about 15 planks of untreated wood (to avoid contaminating the fish) for £2 each. But my best buy was a circular mitre saw, which I managed to bargain down to £8.
That’s not even mentioning the refrigerator I bought off a guy I met on a side street in Deptford. He was surrounded by a fleet of used fridges which were on their way off to be sold in Africa when I approached him. Mentally preparing myself to haggle for a fridge, he just said he’d give it to me for £20. I couldn’t have said “deal” any faster. I slid the fridge into my car and drove away. If I wasn’t able to find all the tools and bargain fridge that I needed in the market, I probably would’ve spent well over £200.
I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started building the smoker and it took a bunch of research and head scratching to figure it all out. I’ve never done any kind of woodwork before, plus my family joke that I’ve always been bad at DIY. So I was doubly determined to prove them wrong. It took me about six weekends and a number of evenings in the back garden to get it done.
With the smoker built, the only thing I needed was the fish, and then I’d be cooking. So I woke up at 3am to drive to Billingsgate Fish Market in Canary Wharf, the largest fish market in England, for when it opened at 4am. Although it was open to the public at that time, even that early it took me an hour to get in due to Covid restrictions. Once inside, I decided to try and circumvent the queue and managed to convince one of the suppliers to give me his mobile number, and the next time I went to the market, I gave him a ring.
I told him what I wanted over the phone, he packed up the salmon, and chucked them over the railing surrounding the market into my waiting hands. I threw a wad of cash back at him. But the thing with these suppliers is that they’re a bit wily – they can smell weakness (or ignorance, more accurately), and it’s in their interest to offload fish before they must throw it away. One time he packed up some salmon that was on the turn. Having pulled them still flapping from the water myself, I know what a fresh salmon does and doesn’t look like. So I had to call him up and give him a piece of my mind. Thankfully, I don’t have to receive my fish from a wily trader over the side of a railing.
One day, I was buying bait to go sea fishing in Dungeness on the Kent coast and got chatting to the fishmonger. Taking interest in what I was trying to do with smoked salmon, he agreed to bring me in with him through the trade entrance the next time he went down to Billingsgate Market. He introduced me to some of the traders, pointed out to me the people to avoid (one of whom turned out to be my old supplier!) and the people to go to for the best fish at the best price, usually transported here from Scotland. Now, all I have to do is park up at the trade entrance and they’ll cart the fish directly to the boot of my car.
Smoking salmon takes time, both in the preparation and the smoking itself. The night before I go to the market, I clean all the surfaces down in the kitchen and sharpen up my chef knives which I bought in Japan four years ago. I had to teach myself how to fillet fish, because the only way I can guarantee that what I have purchased is fresh is by inspecting the fish in their unprocessed state and then filleting myself. Smoked salmon is never cooked, it’s cured. Once I have removed the fillets from the fish, I cover them in salt – which pulls about 10 per cent of the moisture out of it, and then put the fish in my separate fridge for about 12 hours. Then I’ll rinse all the salt off and then hang them up with some string inside the smoker.
There’s a tiny ember at the bottom of the smoker that eats its way through a pile of Oak sawdust, and it slowly smoulders away for another half day or so. I used to run the smoker during the night, but I had to keep getting up to check if the ember had gone out, so now I smoke the fish during the day. With cold smoking, there’s no heat involved at all, it only flavours the fish.
I started out by selling the smoked salmon to my friends and colleagues who live close by, and they were all really impressed. Word started to spread, and I set up an Instagram page. It’s called Andrew’s Smokehouse. My follower count started to grow, and now I’m getting orders from members of the public.
Unlike the wafer thin slices sold in supermarkets, I cut mine to about the thickness of a pound coin, so you actually get a full mouth of salmon rather than a stingy piece of clingfilm. I’m pretty receptive to people requesting what section of the fillet they want. The middle belly part is often the softest, most buttery section with a subtle smoky flavour. Towards the tail, you get a stronger smoky flavour and a firmer texture. If you want a certain part, you can have it.
The feedback has been overwhelming. More than a few customers have said to me that it’s the best smoked salmon they’ve ever had. I’ve started to get about 30 customers a week, and so far, I’ve made around £5,000, and lockdown has helped me save another extra £5,000 on top of it. Honestly, I am a little bit sick of smoked salmon now! So I’ve started experimenting with other things that I can smoke. I made a test batch of smoked almonds recently and smoked some mackerel, which was a special order for a customer.
Last month, I was taken off of furlough and I’m now working four days a week. I still do my usual Tuesday trip to Billingsgate Market and then reserve my Fridays for delivering the salmon to people’s homes. I’d love to smoke salmon as a full-time job but I’m quite wary that it might not be the savviest move at the moment. I can’t really afford to sacrifice my regular income.
That said, I’ve got my sights on Christmas time. And if I need to, I’ll be building a bigger smoker in the garden.
As told to Alex Lee
This article is part of a new WIRED series exploring how people’s lives have been changed by lockdown
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