The kipper-smoker: ‘A lot of the lads are made to undress outside when they get home’

Tessa Waugh meets Neil Robson of Craster in Northumberland, the man responsible for the best smoked kippers in Britain. Photograph by Richard Cannon.

If your idea of the perfect breakfast involves a kipper, you’ll know that the best ones come from Craster in Northumberland. Kippers have been smoked in Craster since 1856 and Neil Robson is the fourth generation to run the family business of L. Robson & Sons. ‘We currently buy herring [the raw product] from Norway as it’s been illegal to fish them here since the 1970s, but the system for smoking them hasn’t changed,’ he explains.

kipper smoker

©Richard Cannon/Country Life Picture Library

The fish are split in half, cleaned by hand and soaked in brine before being hung on sticks called tenter sticks (the origin of the expression ‘on tenter hooks’) and left to drip dry. They’re then smoked above fires fed by oak shavings for up to 16 hours. Managing the temperature in the smokehouse is a skill in itself – if it gets too hot, the kippers fall off the sticks. Watching Mr Robson tend the fires, I wonder how he ever rids his clothes of the smell of smoked fish. ‘It is funny stuff,’ he chuckles. ‘It gets into the skin and a lot of the lads are made to undress outside when they get home.’

Mr Robson sells 50 percent of his smoked fish to Waitrose; the rest is sold in delicatessens and farm shops nationwide and he’s confident about the future. ‘Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been so optimistic,’ he admits, ‘but people are becoming more discerning about what they eat and ours is a natural product that’s rich in Omega 3. Kippers are definitely making a comeback.’

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