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Sean, Elmar and John Nolan of Union Hall Smoked Fish

Sean, Elmar and John Nolan of Union Hall Smoked Fish

 

 

Between the dark evenings and the budget it really feels like things are drawing in. Commonly accepted dietary advice at such times is to prescribe a range of mood enhancing foods to beat the winter blues. I say commonly accepted, because there are certainly those, like Ben Goldacre who writes Bad Science in the Guardian, who rail against the medicalisation of food, which more often than not ends up in encouraging us to swallow handfuls of dietary supplements with our breakfast rather than take more constructive steps to addressing our issues. Anyway, I believe I’m still on safe ground in recommending Omega 3 rich oily fish. Omega-3 raises serotonin levels in the brain, the chemical messenger that regulates mood and reduces irritability. Eating fish to regulate your mood doesn’t lead to an instant high, but if you incorporate it into your diet it should be beneficial in the long term. Herring and mackerel have the highest Omega 3 content and now is the time of year when the West Cork boats are landing herring. Herring and mackerel are connected, in that they are caught in the same way by the same boats and can only be landed at certain ports – in West Cork these are Baltimore and Castletownbere.

This week I headed down to Union Hall to talk to Sean Nolan, a fish smoker who buys in locally landed mackerel and herring. Before meeting Sean I had a chat with his mackerel and herring supplier, Donie Sheehy of Ilen Seafoods in Baltimore, to get an overview of the herring and mackerel fisheries. “There are plenty of mackerel out there and most of the boats fill their quotas at the start of the year, the season is too short.  Mackerel migrate once a year from the north of Scotland down along the west coast of Ireland to breed – by March they are off Cork and Kerry. Some of the boats hold off on 10% of their quota at the end of March so that they can land mackerel in November and December when they are caught as a bye-catch when fishing for horse mackerel. The mackerel we sell to Sean are the same species that you can catch off the pier, but much bigger. Sean needs fish of around half a kilo with a high fat content. If he was to smoke the fish they catch off the rocks they’d look like sprats in the bag after smoking.”

Union Hall Smoked Fish was established by Sean’s parents, John and Elmar, in the late 1980s and Sean has taken over in the last few years having previously worked as a fisherman. “I gave twenty years fishing out of Union Hall, mostly we fished for prawns but we also went after herrings. When I was 17 I was making £1000 a week into the hand for the first four weeks of June. And at that time, we were in every night, there was no staying out. It has changed so much now, I’d never go back to it, especially when you hear about the hassle they’re getting from the department. This is still a fishing village, most people are connected to it, but I can’t see there being much onshore employment from fishing anymore because the fish won’t be there and neither will the work. The big boats now are staying out for up to 3 weeks and doing all the processing on board.”

The mackerel and herring are hand filleted at Ilen Seafoods and Sean soaks them in brine (salt and water) to prepare them for smoking. They are then hot smoked in oak shavings for 4 or 5 hours before they are chilled back down and vacuum packed. Hot smoking cooks the fish, unlike cold smoking, which simply infuses the smoke flavour and creates an anti-bacterial protective smoked coating. Union Hall Smoked Fish also produce fine cold smoked salmon, barbequed salmon and in the winter, smoked whitefish. Sean and his full time staff of 6 also make spreadable fish pates from mackerel and salmon. Whilst most of the fish is from conventional fish farms, organic is starting to feature more prominently. “Although a lot of the salmon we buy in is organic we don’t sell it as such yet. I think that all of the Irish salmon farms will be organic within a few years.”

Like any conversation these days we ended up talking about the recession. “It really hasn’t hit our sales. But I have noticed suppliers getting nervous about credit control. We’re buying mayonnaise from the same supplier for over ten years and always had 4 weeks to pay, with never a problem. Last week they rang looking for a cheque after 2 weeks! They must be worrying about smaller businesses. From our own point of view we really have to keep an eye on restaurants that are only open for one summer – we never seem to get paid for the busiest month – August. You be amazed at the neck of some people, coming back the next summer with a new restaurant having not paid us the year before. They’ll tell you things like ‘Oh! I was only the front man for that place, it wasn’t mine’ and they expect you to supply them again!”

As with many of the other local food producers I’ve spoken to, Sean emphasizes the importance of having good relationships with shops. The company do all their own deliveries rather than go through central distribution and Sean’s mother, Elmar, although semi-retired still regularly takes the van out for a run. “The person working in the store is very important to us and we put a lot of work into that. I’ve pulled out of stores where our product has been shoved to the back 20 minutes after I’ve put it onto the shelf. I can’t stand that, everyone wants their product to be visible but I’d never cover another man’s fish!”

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