Thank You For Smoking

Smoked milk is ‘surprisingly nice’ according to Michael Leviseur, and lasts for up to six weeks. Claude Bosi has commissioned some for savoury custard to serve with fish and, not to be outdone, Heston Blumenthal is experimenting with smoked butter. Black pudding, chocolate, and eggs have all made their way into Michael’s smoke house but he admits to drawing the line at badger. ‘Someone asked me to smoke a badger,’ he explains. ‘Apparently badger ham is a traditional delicacy and the animal in question was hung and ready – but I declined.’

The Organic Smokehouse might be all the rage for celebrity chefs but it is certainly no passing fad. Mr Leviseur was disillusioned about life as a London commuter as well as about the quality of conventional smoked salmon. His decision to set up a smoke house in the country is hardly suprising – in the eighties he trained as a Harris tweed weaver in the Hebrides, where he also became a dab hand at smoking salmon. ‘They were quiet times,’ he admits – times that inspired him to leave his job in Canary Wharf and move his family to the small village of Clunbury, ten miles from Ludlow, in Shropshire.

‘We arrived on a Saturday with no jobs and no income,’ he explains, ‘A delivery of salmon arrived on Monday and by Friday we were dispatching orders – it has sort of gone on from there.’

‘There’ is a small smoking shed, outside the house, and four years later Michael and wife Debbie are still using it to smoke organic sea farmed salmon. ‘I don’t want to become a factory – I will always be artisan, producing by hand,’ Michael is quick to point out. ‘But demand for our products keeps on increasing’.

Michael attributes this to the quality salmon he uses. ‘Conventional salmon is pumped full of antibiotics and is very oily,’ he explains, ‘but mine has been organically farmed in open sea. It has to work much harder and takes 50% longer to come to size but it is a healthier product and much lighter in colour, fed only on natural shrimp shells.’

The salmon is smoked for a minimum of 24 hours over fallen air-dried Shropshire oak while it is still very fresh. Beforehand it is dry salted and air-dried for 24 hours to ensure a firmer flesh and avoid oiliness. ‘Orders taken on Tuesday will have been fished in the Hebrides that day – they arrive with me on Thursday and will be sliced and sent out on Monday. It is almost short-order cooking.’ And he is proud enough of the finished article to package it in transparent plastic. ‘You want to see what you’re buying and we’ve got nothing to hide,’ he maintains.

It is the same for the smoked cheese, salt, butter and oil. ‘Every one of our products has got a story behind it – they are all made by independent producers,’ says Michael. The cheddar is made locally with milk from cows grazing the surrounding fields and the Parmesan is 24-months old from a closed cycle farm near Modena, Italy. ‘The cheese is tapped with a hammer to check it is up to standard before it is stamped with the official Parmigiano Reggiano crest. But even then Umberto the producer rejects some.’

According to Michael smoke and sweet tastes work well together. ‘Smoke calms things down,’ he explains, ‘It takes the sharpness out of the cheddar and gives flavour to the ricotta.’ He recommends using them in cooking; a smoked ricotta quiche for example; a roasted tomato tart with smoked parmesan crust; hollandaise, mash or pastry made from smoked butter.

Eggs, Michael says, are the only things to have got the better of his smokers. ‘They take on the odour of the fridge,’ he says, ‘But for some reason when you put an egg in smoke, the molecules are too big to go through the shell. Duck eggs and quails eggs are fine but hen eggs just don’t work.’ Eventually, after much research he succeeded in finding a breed of hen egg with a small air gap at the top. ‘Smoking them is a long old process,’ he admits.

And probably not popular with his wife Debbie, whose washing line is permanently downwind of the smokery.

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