Archive for June 30th, 2008

Sally Barnes, Fish Smoker, Castletownshend

In the last few weeks fishermen have quite rightly forced their way to the top of the agenda in discussions about how we feed ourselves. With their backs to the wall, they have turned their anger to resolved action and their internal disagreements to a unified campaign. We are hearing a clear and reasonable message and seeing a campaign to win the public over. They appear to making some headway with the EU on a short-term aid package and have also impressed their message on the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, which has acknowledged the need for a “fresh start”. But the big problems won’t go away overnight – what can be done to reduce the cost and usage of oil? How can we manage our fisheries sustainably so that they provide a good living now and into the future? What do we as consumers need to be aware of when buying fish? Are there some fish that we just can’t afford to eat?


I wanted some answers and if I’m honest I wanted someone to hold my hand and tell me it would be alright. I wanted to hear that there was light at the end of the tunnel and some interesting new things to eat. So I decided to chat to Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery in Castletownshend, because I knew these questions affected her, but the first thing Sally asked me was if I could get used to eating jellyfish. Whatever way you look at it there aren’t too many bright lights on the horizon.


Sally has been a fish smoker since she acquired a mini-kiln as part settlement of a bad-debt in 1981. She learned this ancient food preserving craft by trial and error, at the time having easy access to fish from her husband, a commercial fisherman. “I experimented with my own palate and the palates of many of my friends”.  Over the years Sally grew Woodcock Smokery into a business that made a valuable contribution to the local economy, employing 6 people full time at its peak and providing a good outlet for local salmon fishermen. She has won international acclaim as a fish smoker, notably winning the Supreme Champion award across all food categories at the Great Taste Awards in London in 2006. But the salmon fishery is now closed and without local salmon Woodcock Smokery can only provide 2 part time jobs. In the short term Sally is sourcing salmon from sustainable sea fisheries in Scotland but in the medium term she plans to retrain and pursue a career in mediation.


Sally will only work with wild fish, ideally landed locally and is very set against fish farming as it is generally practiced. Apart from salmon, she smokes a wide range of fish including mackerel, herring, tuna and haddock. But Woodcock Smokery is not about scale and cannot compete on price at the lower end of the market. What makes Sally’s smoked fish worthy of its luxury tag is the difference in taste and texture achieved from the time that she and her skilled team spend preparing it. Everything is done by hand, and there are no shortcuts. Wild salmon, in particular, rewards this extra attention and Sally’s customers around the globe recognise that. “I’m very glad I’m small because I can be flexible and work with the freshest fish available. I have customers who value that and will take what I produce. It’s getting harder to get really fresh fish though because most of the boats are now landing only once a week. Most of the time I can’t get fresh haddock, it may have been caught and kept on ice for five days at sea before it’s landed. In fairness the co-op auction officers in Skibbereen and Castletownbere are a big help, I trust their information on what is fresh. My job is to preserve fish but if it’s already 5 days old it needs to eaten right away, not preserved. So, instead of haddock I’m trying pollock which is caught inshore locally. It would great if we had an active fleet of half-deckers, small boats that would land every night. To make sure that they didn’t have to travel too far we’d need protected nursery areas for the fish stocks, maybe 6 mile no fishing zones. We also need flexible chefs and fishmongers who are willing to work with whatever is available and fresh. Most restaurants have a set menu and so if they’re going to have cod or turbot every day they need to the buy frozen imported variety.”


Commenting on the current regime that fishermen have to work within, Sally told me, “the strict enforcement of quotas at present makes no sense. Perfectly good fish that come up in nets are being thrown back dead rather than landed. Then when they do land the fish allowed under their quota, they face competition from imports. I spoke to a fisherman last week who had to sell turbot at €10.50/kg! A ridiculous price, but it’s hard to get buyers interested when they can guarantee a continuous flow of imported farmed turbot at €12/kg.” Woodcock Smokery also needs continuity in supplies, but Sally does this by maintaining a stock of fish that she freezes at a nearby plant in Baltimore. She has a lot of money tied up in stock which for a small business presents cashflow challenges. However, being part of a fishing community, she is very attuned to the needs of her neighbours “Fishermen have to be paid week on week, some processors try to pay for their salmon at the end of the season, but a fishing household needs regular income.” Sally believes that it will be possible in time to restore salmon fisheries in Ireland. To achieve this in West Cork will require the establishment of a few up-river hatchery sites which Sally is currently campaigning for.


At this point the conversation turned once again to jellyfish. “If we continue to just grab fish from only one level in the food chain then we create an imbalance, a vacuum and something else will come in to replace it, something that we don’t have a use for, like jellyfish. We need to balance our consumption over the food chain and eat fish that are lower down. One fish I am looking forward to smoking later in the year are sprats. They are delicious and because they’re so young they’ve no contaminants and so are very good for us.”

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