Visitors to previous editions of Slow Fish may remember Sally Barnes, the ever-smiling Scotswoman whose love of food and life shines like a beacon of joy.
She returns to Slow Fish 2019 as one of our Queens of the Sea, preserving an ancient knowledge which has been part of life along the Irish coast for centuries: fish smoking.
In with the old… and in with the new!
The Woodcock Smokery opened in 1981 in Castletownshend, on the Atlantic coast of County Cork. As well as safeguarding a traditional technique which is at real risk of disappearing altogether, Sally and her team are innovating: in the last year they have started a school to teach fish smoking to chefs and the public. ‘With the help of my wonderful assistant and friend Max Jones we’re now processing the roe from wild salmon to make bottarga too, and using the trimmings to make a lightly smoked wild salmon oil, all from what would be considered “waste” by many in the industry.’
It’s not all salmon, either. It can’t be: the season lasts just eight weeks and last year the fishers were blighted by dried-out rivers. So innovation and diversification are necessities, not luxuries. ‘To make the best use of under-utilized species we’re experimenting with smoking skate and other rays. Nobody else is working with them. They’re undervalued but delicious fish. We’re also planning to make garum from salmon carcasses, to make sure every molecule of potential is maximized.’
The levers of international trade are pushing Ireland’s wild fisheries to the brink, as Sally explains. ‘The widespread, so-called “organic” farmed salmon are generating lots of new diseases, posing a massive threat to the beleaguered wild salmon population. The profits from this dirty industry go back to companies in Norway while we’re left to clean up the detritus and preserve the precious wild fish for future generations. Wild salmon was a common sight on dinner tables here until the ban on draft nets, now it’s almost impossible to source.’
While diversifying our diet is an essential part of any program to protect the sea, even here there are issues. ‘More people now consume squid, which is sustainable, and mussels, but these are ridden with microplastics. What’s more, the stocks are often caught when they gather to spawn, which is idiotic. For our business, smoked white pollock is becoming more important, but it’s a struggle to compete with the prices of the French markets. The Irish quota in Irish waters is a disgrace, it’s around 5% of most stocks, while the big boats take everything for themselves, leaving virtually nothing for small inshore fisheries. The global market affects local prices too: as Ireland now exports most of its crab to China, prices have gone up by 400% in recent years, shutting local people out. It’s a shame.’
Another angle of attack
We may imagine sports fishing by individuals to be closely-aligned with small-scale fisheries in terms of both methods and morals, but this isn’t always the case. In Ireland, the commercial fishers and the anglers have been at odds for decades. While the anglers blame the fisheries for the decline in salmon numbers over recent years, Sally says the anglers’ government-endorsed practice of “catch and release” is also problematic. ‘The fish might look alright when they’re released, but they’re often found floating belly-up further downstream. They can’t process the adrenaline in their bodies which is caused by being hauled out of the water fighting.’
Of course, with dwindling numbers of fish, the number of fishers is also in decline. ‘Our “salmon man” is Michael Walsh, a third-generation draft net fisherman. They’re allowed to fish for just eight weeks a year, but with the dry summer last year there was no water in the Blackwater river, and they had to hand back over 1000 carcass tags, unused. If the catches don’t improve this year, it may be their last. For the rest of the year Michael drives the school bus to make ends meet.’
Despite all the difficulties, Sally’s business continues to win praise and plaudits. In the last year, Woodcock Smokery was awarded the Euro Toques Ireland Award for the Craft of salting and smoke curing wild fish: ‘A huge honor’ for Sally. She’s also won the Georgina Campbell Breakfast Award for fish, another in an already-long list of recognitions of the importance and quality of Sally’s craft.