Friday, February 16, 2007

Kippers and Red Herrings

Look at this beautiful, beautiful fish. It’s a Scottish kipper, a smoked herring. They split the herrings along the back from head to tail, gut them and soak them in brine. Then they hang them up on tenter hooks (the metal hooks used originally to fix wet cloth to a frame (a tenter) so it dried straight), hang them on racks and smoke them in big kilns.

Kippering is one of those methods of preserving fish, mainly salmon and herring, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. The word kipper is certainly Old English, and the most likely derivation is from the Old English kippian, to spawn. Spawning fish are not good to eat fresh, but they turn up in large numbers, so kippering is a good way to deal with a glut. The crude smoking process also used to turn the fish a golden red, hence the expression red herring. In the 1840s John Woodger of Seahouses, in Northumberland, decided to adapt the old salmon-kippering process, gutting the herring and smoking it slowly over oak for 6 to 18 hours. Modern methods preserve even more of the original colour of the fish, and it glints gold and silver, with a blue black back and a white belly.

Anyone who grew up in the North of England, or Scotland, will remember kippers for high tea, often on a wintery Saturday, with bread and butter and tea. If you’re lucky you might get them in a good hotel as a cooked breakfast, but they were out of favour for a while because there were some disreputable evil colours in the cheaper curing processes. Now they are big on the menu again, because they are oily fish and we all know about oily fish don’t we?

You can jug them, bake them in foil, fry them or eat them raw. But I prefer them grilled, with a knob of butter to slide around over them under the grill. And all you really need to go with them is good fresh bread and butter.

If, however, you would like something more in the way of a vegetable, let me offer to you a recipe for colcannon from none other than Dame Helen Mirren. And here it is:

Ingredients for Colcannon

1 lb/450 g kale or cabbage, finely chopped

7-8 fl oz/200-225 ml milk or cream

2 small leeks or green spring onion tops, chopped

2 lb/900 g potatoes, preferably Irish, diced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

A pinch of ground mace

4 tbsp butter melted


Cook the kale or cabbage in a large pan of boiling water until very tender, then drain and keep warm. Put the milk or cream in a small pan with the leeks or spring onions and simmer until soft. In another saucepan, cook the potatoes until tender, then drain and mash them.

Mix in the leeks or onion tops and enough milk or cream to give a creamy consistency. Add the kale or cabbage and season with salt, pepper and mace. Drizzle with the melted butter and serve immediately.

Serves 4


Susan in Italy said...

Thanks for the culinary history lesson. The red herring..and now I know why it's so bad to be on "tenter hooks".

Lynn D. said...

I am thrilled to have Helen Mirren's recipe for colcannon which is a dish I love. And it tickles me to imagine her tucking into a big plate of it!

sally said...

I love kippers....good job really as I sell fish at tesco.
Good to microwave them, they leave very little smell in your house then

HerbanGirl said...

I don't know if I've ever had kippers, but now I'll have to look around Sacramento and see if I can find some. And colcannon! That name seems so perfectly Irish to me, and makes me dreamy for green, misted, sheep-dotted hillsides. What a perfect way to use my springtime love - leeks!

Anonymous said...

Saw your post and had to share this company.
The best kippers i have ever tasted were from a small company on the west coast of Scotland. One of the last traditional brick kiln companies left.
JAFFY'S or J.lawrie and sons you can phone them on 01687462665
These truly were the best ever!!!
Very reasonable prices and they send them by post!

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