The fish is dry outside; inside it is creamy-white, moist and flaky. It is slightly salty, with a mild fish and mild smoke taste. The smoky aroma is stronger than the actual taste of the smoke. Each fish weighs between 12 to 19 oz (350-550 g.)
Arbroath Smokies are made in the region of Angus on the North Sea coast of Scotland. They must be made by law within 5 miles (8 km) of the Arbroath town centre (population: 22,785, 2001 census.) The 5 mile distance allows the village of Auchmithie 3 miles north of Arbroath near Meg’s Craig to be taken into the range. A small fishing village on top of a 150 foot (50 metre) high cliff, Auchmithie is where the smoking technique was actually invented.
In producing Arbroath Smokies, the fish has its head removed, and is then cleaned without being split. The backbone is left in and the tail left on. The fish is salted and let stand anywhere from 2 hours to overnight, depending on the size of the fish. Then they are tied in pairs by the tails, and hung over wooden sticks and let dry. The drying helps prevent the skin from splitting during smoking.
The sticks with the fish on them are then placed about 3 feet (1 metre) above a fire. The fire is in an above-ground pit, usually made of brick, about 6 feet (2 metres) square. It used to be an actual pit in the ground, then whisky barrels were used, then the brick pits, but the brick pits are still called “barrels.”
Any hardwood can be used in the fire, but it’s usually beech or oak chips. The “pit” is then covered with hessian cloth (aka burlap) to tame the strength of the flame and keep smoke in, but also to let the fire have air so that it doesn’t go out. The number of layers of burlap can be adjusted based on weather conditions, etc. The heat inside the pit causes moisture to drip out of the fish, which falls onto the fire and causes humid smoke.
The fish is smoked for between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on strength of the fire, wind and weather conditions, etc. The fish turn golden brown from the smoke and are fully cooked by the heat.
Arbroath Smokies are already cooked; they just need reheating.
They can be used for poaching, baking, grilling, fishcakes, pies, kedgeree, or soup.
You can just reheat them in a slow oven. Split the fish open, remove the backbone, spread with butter, close the fish back up, wrap in foil, then bake in a slow oven. Some like to put them in an ovenproof dish, put some milk in the dish, cover the dish with foil, and heat for about 30 minutes.
To poach: put in a skillet with enough boiling water to just cover, and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain the smokies and discard the pan water. Put smokies back in the pan with some cream over them, and let gently simmer for 5 minutes. Serve with the cream sauce.
The smoking tradition may have originated with Norse invaders around 1,000 AD.
Fishermen migrated south from Auchmithie to Arbroath starting in the 1700s, lured by enticements of Arbroath town council.
Arbroath Smokies received Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in 2004. The process took 2 years. Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92.
Literature & Lore
Sir Walter Scott used the village of Auchmithie in his novel, “The Antiquary”, though he renamed it to Musselcrag.