Sunday, November 02, 2008


The biography of the kipper is a woolly and often apocryphal one. Each starts life as a herring, of course, and its life-story is similar to that of its nearest relatives the bloater and the buckling. It is gutted, butterflied (but not filleted), salted and dried in a very smoky chamber at room temperature. (The bloater and the buckling, by contrast, retain their guts when smoked, and the buckling is actually cooked by the smoking process) This much we know; but where did the kipper originate?

My dad and I visited the Northumberland coast the other week. There is a small fishing port there, just twenty or so miles from the Scottish border, called Seahouses. It hosts a terrific fishing pub, a small harbour and some biting winds, and it also claims to be the home of the kipper. One day (or so the story goes) a girl with dexterous fingers who had travelled down from Scotland to gut fish left a batch of herrings in a smoky room, and lo, the kipper was born. Or so the story goes.

If it doesn’t already exist, I might try my hand at writing a history of herring fishing one day. It was once an extraordinarily productive industry. In the late eighteenth century, around 60 billion fish were caught in the Atlantic and its eastern seas, and in 1913, 90 million fish were landed at Lowestoft and Yarmouth alone. The season would start in the Scottish waters, then the herring would move south, pursued by the fishermen, past Northumberland and East Yorkshire, towards the Suffolk coast, where the season would end. (Even the south coast would enjoy a brief herring harvest: the Dorset towns of Langport Herring and Chaldon Herring tell their own story.)

Herrings are fickle; you think you’ve worked them out, and then they confound you. W.G. Sebald explains that

it has been supposed that variations in the level of light and the prevailing winds influence the course of their wanderings, or geomagnetic fields, or the shifting marine isotherms, but none of these speculations has proved verifiable. For this reason, those who go in pursuit of herring have always relied on their traditional knowledge, which draws upon legend, and is based on their own observation of facts such as the tendency of the fish, swimming in even, wedge-shaped formations, to reflect a pulsating glow skyward when the sunlight falls at a particular angle.

The herring industry’s harvest reached such epic proportions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that surpluses of herrings were sometimes left on beaches to rot in the summer sun (“affording the terrible sight of Nature suffocating on its own surfeit”). Since herring fishing is a seasonal business, the preservation of fish for the winter months became necessary to avoid this sort of waste. Our Scottish fish-gutter may not have realised, but curing, salting and smoking fish would become a hugely profitable affair.

But the Seahouses story doesn’t ring true. The etymology of the word "kipper" (which once described the salting, rather than the smoking, of the fish) pre-dates it by centuries. Thomas Nash, East Anglian author of picaresque dramas, describes a similar story as early as 1599. There are many such stories, and all of them claim that kippering was the result of an accident by simple folk. Such is the mystique we place around this dish.

But the north-east has perfected the art of smoking herrings. At the risk of going all Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the kippers we bought in Craster were sublime, the best we'd eaten. The fish were fatty, and had been thoroughly cured, but only lightly smoked. We bought ten pairs, all but two of which have been gobbled up. Perhaps I should fulfil my new yearls resolution of smoking a couple of herrings (with a bread-bin as smoking chamber) after all.

(My apologies for the paucity of posts recently btw - I am entirely without internet, due to a defective wireless widget. Keep looking in - normal service will resume soon)


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