It wasn’t until the age of 12 that I first set foot across the border into Scotland. It was only a matter of time, as a young lad obsessed with fishing and longing to see a salmon for real, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found myself balls deep in the swift, peaty waters of the River Carron surrounded by the vast heather draped highlands. I even managed to tuck into my first Salmon- a fine 6 pounder fresh from the sea. Somehow, after a battle of biblical proportions, I managed to get the fish in with my 8ft split cane trout rod…I was also the only person to catch that week! On the same trip I went deer stalking for the first time, which is where the antlers that adorn the front of the treehouse came from…so this time I was keen to bring something that would add more than just aesthetic value to my treehouse.
Eager for a bit of company after my first 2 months living amongst the leaves, I took a brief trip to the west coast of Scotland for a “couples” holiday-myself and my lady, Emma & Justin and Jimbo & Clare. Not too far from Oban is the Inverawe Smokery, owned by Robert & Rosie Campbell-Preston, Emma (their daughter) invited us up for a short break…like most things I find myself thrown in to these days, I had an underlying motive: what could I learn from the finest smoker’s in the Country?
I had tasted the delights of the Inverawe range when I lived up in town, I always eagerly awaited the starter at Emma’s dinner parties, which I knew would be smoked duck, eel, trout, mussel or my favourite- the roast smoked Salmon. This holiday was also a chance to do a little low maintenance gorging- I have been eating well over the last couple of months, but to be able to heat water at the flick of a switch, twist a handle for a shower and turn on the gas rings for a fry up would be delightful…oh the joys of modern technology!
After hopping on the 7.20 from Euston to Glasgow, followed by a 2 hour car journey, I found myself back in my element: balls deep in the River Awe flicking a fly across the ripples.
On the first morning I was up at 6.30am, eager to get in amongst some fish. I had the choice of sea trout on the river, or 4 lochs chock to the brim with big trout…decisions, decisions! I pulled out a few trout from two of the lochs and then hauled out a sea trout from the river. By 10.30am I wandered back up to the house with a big smile that grew even bigger when I was greeted by a full English.
I won’t go through all the ins and outs of “6 go mad in Scotland”, tales of air-humping Jack Russell’s, going to jail, Green Jean, culinary finesse of haggis, clapshot and whisky and the notorious “mussel bandits” are all too much to go into… so on with the smoking!
A familiar smell hit me as soon as I arrived, so much so that I actually sniffed myself; as a result of my tree-dwelling experience I have become permanently infused with Wood smoke pour homme. It was of course the waft of smouldering oak drifting across from the smokery.
Robert Campbell-Preston is the Hugh Hefner of smoking (without the jacket and leggy blonde tarts), the man is clearly a master of his art, and Rosie is the genius behind what to do with the product as can be seen in her Inverawe cookbook. Robert explained to me the time and experimentation that goes into each new product; the majority of his cold-smoked items spend around 72 hours in the chamber. Hot-smoked products also benefit from a night of cold smoking before being finished. It was very clear that this is one slick operation that pays attention to detail, tradition and above all: taste.
On our second night, after a shirt-splittingly good meal, Robert took Justin (his prospective son in law) and myself down into the heart of the operation. At around 10pm we entered the smokery, donned a lab coat, hair net and a shiny pair of white wellies before going through a good sanitising. Through the processing kitchen we entered the smoky underworld of the Inverawe smoking chambers. The smoke gave the corridor of chambers an unnatural haze and despite the amount of fish I knew was behind each numbered door, the fishy smell was nowhere to be found.
Justin and I tried not to get in the way as Robert checked the temperature of each chamber and went about the health and safety garb associated with the traceability of each batch. Finally he opened up a chamber to remove some Salmon steaks due to be “roast smoked” the following morning. Not even a trip to my local monger could have prepared me for all those glorious fat, pink fillets of salmon fresh out of the smoker…the sight of it made my mouth water, as if on cue Robert removed a hunk of Salmon flesh and we sampled some of the freshest smoked salmon I have ever had the pleasure of tasting.
As we left to go and check on the smouldering urns out the front, Robert showed us the Walk-in fridge. Most of the products are destined for packaging to be distributed to the likes of Harrods, Selfridges, and Waitrose etc. Certain batches are on order for such culinary institutions as Bentley’s Oyster bar in London (and weirdly enough, my favourite Restaurant). In the fridge was a crate holding a batch of enormous Eels, It was clear from the look on Roberts face, as he wielded a smoked beast, that he was quite pleased with them.
Outside, we attended to the urns that held the wood for smoking. I always thought that only sawdust was used for smoking. Here at inverawe they use logs, which are placed on top of a chamber of gently smouldering sawdust. Robert explained that they used beech and oak as their primary fuel source and that he has become quite the hero amongst local sawmills:
“Most of the saw mills only use the main trunk, so their left with all these bloody limbs, so I take a couple of truckloads of the limbs off their hands”.
Robert got a little agitated by a particularly stubborn urn that refused to get into position and reverted to a mock-Scottish accent punctuated with much profanity and colourful language…to which Justin and I fell about laughing. As we left Robert to do his final checks he turned and said:
“Better have a good scrub down boys, or you won’t be getting any tonight!”
Fortunately, Clare has become fairly accustomed to the smell of wood smoke, As for Justin, he would just smell like his better half’s father…what a legend!
As we were not too far from Loch Fyne, we decided to go and scope out the competition. Really, it was just so we could get our teeth into some seafood. Loch Fyne oysters have got quite a reputation and very good they were too. As for their smoked products, no bias necessary, Inverawe have certainly got it in the bag. I sat and had ½ a dozen oysters, the girls had a seafood broth and Jimbo happily sucked out the brains of his langoustine.
I did say I wouldn’t go into details, but, one morning Emma encouraged us to go down to Loch Etive to gather some mussels, something I was particularly keen to do, which would be followed by us boys having a manly “Mussel-off” for lunch…I think the tides must have been wrong and the rain too much. All that remains to be said is that we were well and truly screwed by the mussel bandits- “big time”.
As I prepare to head back to the solitude of the trees and leaves, I take with me the things I have learnt over the last week, things I didn’t know such as brining the fish prior to smoking them, smoking is something that takes a lifetime to perfect in much the same way as casting the perfect fly when balls deep in those Scottish rivers. As I pack up my rucksack and stick in my new copy of “home-curing and smoking” by Keith Erlandson, the possibilities seem endless. Having not seen the Treehouse for a good week, I have begun to miss it, Surfing will have to be postponed this year, I have had my educational “break” this summer, it appears I have an awful lot of work to be getting on with.