Time is the key ingredient for Devon fish smoker

PUBLISHED: 15:42 09 December 2020 | UPDATED: 15:46 09 December 2020

John Nickell, pictured with his smoked salmon, at Blakewell Fishery, near Muddiford, North Devon. Photo: Jim Wileman

John Nickell, pictured with his smoked salmon, at Blakewell Fishery, near Muddiford, North Devon. Photo: Jim Wileman

© jim wileman

Expert reveals the secrets of producing perfect trout and salmon

John shows care and attention as he prepares the fish. Photo: Jim WilemanJohn shows care and attention as he prepares the fish. Photo: Jim Wileman

John Nickell says every one of his fish, whether salmon or trout, is unique. It’s why every fillet that comes through his smokery is hand-crafted and created with the utmost respect. John has been perfecting his fish smoking technique for around 30 years; his whole life has been spent in the field of fish farming and aquatic agriculture.

Before coming back to the family fish farm, Blakewell at Muddiford near Barnstaple, he worked in the same field in various countries, having studied fish science and aquaculture at Sparsholt College in Hampshire.

It was when he found himself in Denmark, that his smoking interest really took off.

The Danish are world leaders in the aquaculture industry, and are big into smoking, both meat and fish, he says. “I got such a passion for it.”

Checking the smoking ingredients before firing up. Photo: Jim WilemanChecking the smoking ingredients before firing up. Photo: Jim Wileman

Armed with all he’d learned, when John returned to Devon in the 1990s to join his brother and father at Blakewell, he continued to experiment with his own smoking techniques. This side of the business really took off around two years ago when the smokery was expanded and John began working on a larger scale.

He produces packs of both smoked trout and salmon. The rainbow trout comes straight from the lakes alongside the smokery. Blakewell is in a beautiful setting, hidden in a quiet valley and surrounded by mature trees. The water that flows through the site comes straight down from Exmoor. As well as the smokery, the site produces stocking fish and is open for fly fishing, catering for all ages and levels of ability. The smokery’s salmon is sent from Wester Ross in Scotland, a long-standing, small scale producer of salmon in the Highlands. The fish are hand-reared and to strong environmental standards, which was important to John, not least because it produces fantastic quality salmon.

READ MORE: 10 top tips to cook the perfect Christmas Day lunch

The fish on racks being smoked. Photo: Jim WilemanThe fish on racks being smoked. Photo: Jim Wileman

A good salmon is “a light and long fish” he says. If it’s grown too quickly and for size alone, it can end with a “watery and greasy” flesh, he says. “It will take on a lot of fat quickly, rather than building muscle.”

John explains the science of keeping his own trout in perfect condition and...it’s complicated. The water has to be constantly monitored for high saturation levels, the fish need plenty of oxygen. To have happy fish, eating food and keeping their own bodies healthy, they need the fresh, Exmoor waters flowing through the fishery. If water stagnates or oxygen levels deplete, then they get stressed, and that means they shut down, they stop eating and “evacuate and excrete”, says John. He likens it to being given a full roast dinner in a hot greenhouse and shutting the door.

The water quality is constantly monitored, by the Nickells and the Environment Agency, but trout farming also includes an element of going with nature.

Ready to remove the fish from the smoker. Photo: Jim WilemanReady to remove the fish from the smoker. Photo: Jim Wileman

“You have got to understand and appreciate the science of nature; you have got to have happy fish and it does affect the taste and quality.

John describes it as, “a gentle cog that turns through the seasons; you can’t speed it up or manipulate it.”

“You have to work with Mother Nature,” he says. “If you try and be clever, Mother Nature is a lot more powerful! The key is not to be too arrogant, but to be grateful for what is available and with which you can create something nice.”

The precious end product. Photo: Jim WilemanThe precious end product. Photo: Jim Wileman

Likewise, the smoking process itself demands time, as well as quality fish. According to John, the smoking can’t be rushed. He says you need to take your time and attend to the details of the drying process, as well as the curing in order to create a product that’s reliable in taste, texture and shelf life.

Blakewell’s smoked products include cold and hot smoked salmon and hot smoked trout. There is also a cold smoked whisky and gin cured salmon, the gin coming from Exmoor’s Wicked Wolf distillery. Although a premium product, to enjoy as a treat, John has always been adamant about not over inflating prices, so a pack to serve two is priced at £5.95.

The products appear in local farm shops and during lockdown, were also in various food box schemes, but a new online shop is launching in time for Christmas. It will include special Christmas hamper packs containing a selection of the smoked products along with tasters of some of the spirits used for curing.

The Blakewell shop is open every Saturday from 10am to 1pm and, depending on the latest Covid situation, special tasting events are also in the pipeline and will be posted online. u

Favourite ways

According to John, the best way to enjoy the classic cold smoked salmon is with some great quality bread. You don’t want to mask the flavour, so keep it simple, he says. “It’s also very nice in the morning with scrambled eggs, but use decent eggs and just with some butter, no milk”.

Or try it with some asparagus and a gentle mustard oil dressing, along with a glass of chilled picpoul wine.

One of the nicest ways with trout, he says, is in a baked potato with a little bit of mayo and avocado. Flake the trout on top, have a watercress salad alongside and “you’ve got a million dollar lunch or supper”.

Another favourite trout dish, and the simplest in the world to make, says John, is a pate. Put a packet of trout fillets in a blender, add two good tablespoons of crème fraiche and a teaspoon of cream cheese, put the lid on and give it a very quick blitz, just one of two pulses, to make a very rough pate. No need for seasoning, put it in ramekins and serve with some blinis.

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