Wherever there is smoke, so the popular saying goes, there is sure to be fire – the doomsayer’s fire of flaming and inevitable disaster. It’s with some trepidation then that I begin this article wanting, as I do, to harness the alchemical magic of smoke to transform, enrich and essentially marry a whole range of predominantly wild foods to the unique flavour that the art of smoking can impart. Yet, aware there will be fire, I want it only to be that of your imagination fired with the burning desire to grab your smoker and get creative! Already then you probably know what all the following foods have in common: wild garlic bulbs, marsh samphire, hard boiled eggs, dulse, Japweed and wrack seaweeds, chanterelle and parasol mushrooms, sweet chestnuts, sea bass, trout, oysters, cheese and, finally, seaweed bread? Yes, they can all be smoked as, indeed, can virtually any food. The two most important considerations for me being, is it safe to do so and does it taste good? Having only ever smoked fish and seaweed before – both delicious, this, for me, is wonderfully experimental, a new cooking adventure on which you are warmly invited to saddle up and enjoy the wild ride.
Food items can be cold smoked (at 10°C -26 °C) or hot smoked (82°C -115°C). Frequently a combination of both methods is used. Cold smoking doesn’t cook food. Hence ready cooked foods can be cold smoked or items safe to eat raw – although to do so safely an initial period of brining is necessary for fish and shellfish. Cold smoking is often carried out as a preliminary procedure to impart a rich depth of smoky flavour prior to hot smoking and, hence, cooking.
There are an infinite number of ways to make a suitable smoker. I will describe three small scale ones. But one could use a fridge or even a converted shed. Basically, for cold smoking the container to be filled with smoke is separated from the source of heat used to set the wood smoking. For hot smoking the heat source is directly below or even inside the container. Temperatures can be measured using a thermometer although experience allows for guesswork to be quite accurate and adequate. The smoking of meat will not be dealt with here. Suffice to say, greater care and accuracy of temperature measurement is required as is a meat thermometer.
Hard woods prepared as sawdust or chippings are the best for smoking: oak, beech, sycamore, ash, hawthorn, apple, plum etc. Some of these can be purchased online, from timber merchants or even at a pet shop. I’ve an old wood plane from a boot fair that I use to make wood shaving from a supply of logs.
Making the smoker
I used just what was to hand: an old dustbin, a biscuit tin, a 10 kg olive tin, a tin can, old barbeque base and a camp stove.
The containers were burnt by making a wood fire inside to remove any toxic coatings.
Mushrooms: Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and Parasol Mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera). One of the big lessons of wild food cookery is that you work happily with what you have, not what you wish you had but can’t find! My intention here had been to work with some more robust bracket fungi available during the summer. Alas, neither tender Chicken of The Woods (Laetiporus sulphurous) nor young Giant Polypores (Meripilus giganteus) were to be found. Nevertheless, both chanterelles and parasol mushrooms are a good choice. The former can be eaten raw, and are well known to be good that way, the latter is best cooked (must be cooked?). I used a mixture of dried chestnut shells and small beech wood chips, cold smoking the mushrooms for four hours at around 30 °C – adding a fresh handful of smoking material every 45mins or so. After this they were hot smoked for 15 mins. Both the chanterelles were and parasols (minus stalks) were left whole and soaked in cold water for 15 minutes prior to smoking. This prevented them from drying out. My rating: smoked chanterelles raw 6/10, cooked 9/10,
smoked and cooked parasol mushrooms 8/10
Seaweeds and samphire: Dulse (Palmaria palmate), Japweed (Sargassum muticum) and Serrated Wrack (Fucus serratus). I selected the healthiest looking tender fronds of each seaweed rinsing in the sea to remove any sand immediately after collecting. You could just bring it home and wash under the tap. Personally, seaweed without a natural coating of salt just isn’t as tasty smoked or not. I cold smoked these suspended from wire for 4 hours at around 30 °C. Half way through the process I removed the seaweed, plunged it into sea water for a few minutes before returning it to the smoker – this prevented drying out. I used oak shavings, adding a large handful after every hour. The samphire took 6 hours of cold smoking and 10 mins hot smoking. Rating after smoking: Dulse raw 10/10, shallow fried 8/10, Japweed raw 3/10, shallow fried 5/10, Serrated Wrack raw 8/10, shallow fried 7/10, Marsh Samphire 4/10. It was very tasty. The low rating simply reflects the fact that steamed and served with butter, lemon and pepper is still by far the best way to eat it.
Fish: Trout and Sea Bass.
I gutted and washed both fish turning the bass into two fillets whilst leaving the trout whole with the head intact. All the fish was then soaked in brine for 1 hour. I cold smoked these suspended on wire at the top of the smoker for 4 hours with the seaweed at 30ish °C. The trout required the use of 2 small sticks wedged inside to stop the flesh sticking together. This way the smoke could circulate over all parts. They were then hot smoked in the most simple of smoker set ups: using an old biscuit tin. Here I used a handful of beech wood chips and dried wild fennel stems. These were placed on top of fully heated barbecue charcoal initially brought to temperature by burning in the tin for 15 minutes. The bass fillets took 15 minutes to hot smoke cook at around 80-85 °C with the trout requiring 20 minutes. It’s good to hot smoke fish on a rack rather than hanging up then, if they do overcook, there is no danger of them breaking up and falling down onto the
smoking material. Ratings: trout 9/10, bass 8/10
Eggs, oysters, and cheese.
The eggs were hard boiled and allowed to cool before shelling. They were then cold smoked for 5 hours. The oysters were scrubbed clean and plunged into boiling brine for 10 minutes. After remove from their shells they were left in cold brine for 30 mins and then hot smoked with the final hot smoke cooking of the bread. The different cheeses: Caerphilly, Mature Goat’s Cheese Gouda and Kent’s Winterdale Shaw mature cow’s milk cheese, were cut into slices of about ½ cm thick and cold smoked for 2 hours.
Ratings: Eggs 8/10 – delicious but could have been smoked longer or sliced prior to smoking perhaps, although that may have dried them out; oysters 7/10. Probably 10/10 if cold smoked for 2 hours first; Cheese 9/10 all varieties.
Sweet chestnuts, wild garlic bulbs.
The sweet chestnuts were rehydrated from my dry stores. These and the fresh wild garlic bulbs took the longest to smoke due to the former’s firm and smoke impenetrable texture and the latter’s intense pungency. Both were cold smoked for 10 hours and hot smoked for 30 minutes.
Rating: Chestnuts 10/10, wild garlic bulbs 8/10
I followed a basic bread recipe and added 2 table spoons of powdered laver and 2 table spoons of powdered sea lettuce to the flour. I proved the bread for 2 hours in the cold smoker before cooking for 30 minutes in the hot smoker.
Rating: 5/10. Good seaweed flavour but surprisingly unsmokey. Also, proving in the cold smoker worked but not as well as when more conventionally done. Much more experimentation needed.
What next I wonder? Smoked pheasant? Definitely! Smoked olives incorporated into a tapenade? Ummm….probably. Smoked blackberry ice-cream flambéed immediately on serving with strong homemade blackberry liqueur? Well……maybe!
For more sensible ideas and inspiration check out Keith Erlandson’s wonderfully informative little book: Home Smoking and curing.
I had intended to make Maitrank according to a traditional French recipe. You take a sweet white wine, add some dried sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), leave to infuse for a few weeks and then serve well chilled on a hot summer’s day – May Day to be more precise. Alas, I couldn’t find any and didn’t have time to go up to my friend’s wood in Inverness that is liberally covered with the pretty leaves. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that, as a general principle, infusing flowers and herbs into wine is a fantastic hassle free way to make a country wine – all the colour and flavour without all the potential wine-making mishaps and initial investment in equipment. Lazy! Simple! Fun!
Below then is a recipe for Chamomile infused wine but you could equally use all sorts of things: fennel, alexanders, lime blossom, elderflower, rose petals, meadowsweet or honey flowers for instance.
One large handful of fresh chamomile (Chamaelelum nobile) or Corn Chamomile (Anthemis arvensis) or even the
related Scented Mayweed (Matricaria recutita) and Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea).
One bottle of delicately flavoured white wine. I usually prefer super dry wines but sweet works best with flower infusions.
0-2 tablespoons sugar (depending on taste and original sweetness of the wine).
On a dry sunny day collect a large handful of flowers. Hang up indoors to completely dry out for a few days or spread out on newspaper and leave in a warm dry place. An airing cupboard is ideal. Once dried, tip a small amount of wine from the bottle to make some room for the sugar and flowers. First add the sugar and shake until it’s all dissolved, then carefully – so you don’t break them all up, add all the flowers to the wine. Leave on a sunny windowsill for 2-3 days before chilling and serving. Use a tea strainer or hold a piece of muslin tightly over the top to filter out the flower parts as you pour.