Too old to start smoking?

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The photo on the left started off way bigger than this, but I needed to edit it because frankly the state of the worksurface on the left of the hob was – well – pretty filthy, and while I don’t mind being a bit of a slob in the Potwell Inn kitchen, I’m not sure I want to share it with the customers! I’m assuming there are (at least) two distinct types of the readers, and the first – on seeing the unedited photo – would say “where’s the Dettox?” whereas the second would be saying “what kind of thermometer is that?” I tend to fall into the second category. Anyway I’ve spared anyone the trouble of worrying about my overflowing coffeee stains so we can concentrate on the topic in hand, which is smoking.

Madame and me tend to take a different line on the subject of preserving. She’s absolutely fine with jams preserves and pickles, but we are divided on the others – namely salting, fermenting and smoking.  With the exception of smoked haddock, where we stand as one in our enthusiasm for the real stuff, (not the pickled dayglo yellow stuff), smoking and fermenting are solitary pleasures which I share guiltily with my sons. I say guiltily because about 100 years ago, when I was a student, I got a summer job at Harris’s, the huge bacon factory in Calne, Wiltshire, when I worked in the stores and where I discovered that “smoked bacon” was not smoked at all in any accepted sense, but anointed with a kind of creosote so powerful that we only took occasional deliveries in jerry cans covered in hazard signs. So that probably means that most of the so-called smoked foods I’ve ever eaten are nothing of the kind.

Therefore, I say, why not have a go at the real thing? Some foods are simple to make but difficut to source –  sausages for instance – need casings and casings come in boxes of ten miles worth at a time, unless you can persuade a friendly butcher to sell you some. Black pudding is difficult to source for the same reason, but more so because you can’t just ship up to an enormous slaughterhouse with a 5 litre bottle and ask for a bit of pigs blood. And even if a friendly slaughterman did feel sorry for you and fill it up, you’d then be lumbered with a long drive home trying to agitate it with your left hand while driving with the right hand.  I’m really sorry for any vegetarian who’s offended by all this talk (Mags and Caroline especially) but I promise I’ll shut up right now.

However real smoking is easy and cheap to do and adds a real zing to the bland and the ordinary.  You don’t even have to buy a ‘proper’ smoker because a wok and a rack will do it just as well. Mine is a purpose built hot smoker which is the only type I can use in our flat with its built in smoke alarms. A cold smoker is generally a hefty looking thing the size of a filing cabinet, so that the smoke can cool down and do its work without heating up the food. For me that adds a whole “Russian roulette” frisson to the idea of smoking. I’m a belt and braces kind of man and killing the bugs with both heat and smoke works better for me than sitting down at the table and checking next week’s diary in case I get campylobacter (again).

I’ve always known that my fascination for procedures with their own special languages and arcane literatures probably marks me as an eccentric but so be it, that’s the way I am, and – oh joy – smoking is preceeded by brining, and that can involve a list of possible ingredients longer than the index of an Ottolenghi book. Today’s couldn’t have been simpler though – three hours in a brine flavoured with honey and crushed black pepper followed by overnight in the fridge to dry out and firm up, and then 30 minutes in the smoker with a thermometer to make sure it all gets over 75C. My chef sons laugh at my caution and say 65C is OK but I’d rather be safe than sorry. What you get (what I got) at the end is a couple of smoked chicken breasts that will be delicious in salads where a little goes a long way, or in a sandwich, and at a fraction of the cost.  However you use it, it’s economical and assists in our aim of eating less meat and more veg. If you’re looking for a steer [sorry – terrible pun -], Diana Henry’s book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” is full of great ideas.

Rain has been keeping us away from the allotment so I’ve been choosing veg varieties for the seed order. Yesterday I spotted a hazel catkin in amongst the leaf waste that the council dumps at the site, and that combined with scanning the seed catalogues has brought an almost tangible sense of spring around the corner. Is it 17 only days until the solstice? Soon that great explosion of life and growth will begin again and we shall be celebrating the lengthening days at the Potwell Inn.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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