Monday, 7 November 2011

Cod, Kippers and Yorkshire Brack

Herring in Fortune's
Smokehouse, Whitby

Not having been to Whitby for years, I was expecting a nippy autumn day, quiet streets and no queue at The Magpie Cafe.  How wrong can you be?  The weather was warm and sunny, the streets as busy as on a summer day and the queue at the Magpie was enormous.  The streets were full of goths, corseted maidens, black-cloaked counts, bustle-bearing ladies and top-hatted gents, and a chap in a truly gorgeous red dress.  I'd been away for so long that for a moment I thought this might be normal for Whitby as the locals were taking it all in their stride, but trust me to pay a visit during the annual Bram Stoker film festival. 

So, I can't introduce you to the food of Whitby, in the farthest reaches of North Yorkshire, without getting the Dracula thing out of the way.  Whitby is the small north-east England fishing town where the Irish novelist, Bram Stoker, began to write the story of 'Dracula'.  Largely thanks to its picturesque ruined clifftop Abbey and atmospheric churchyard sloping towards the sea, it is a huge draw to devotees of the book.  Go in winter or early spring to see Whitby at its quietest and, if you're lucky storm-lashed, best.

By 1890, when Bram Stoker lived in Whitby, Mr William Fortune had been firing up his tiny smokehouse on Henrietta Street for 18 years.  Now, 139 years later, the fifth generation of the Fortune family continue to cure herring to turn them into the delicacy known as kippers.  Gutted and briefly soaked in brine, they are then hung from rods and cured in the original smokehouse over oak, beech and softwood chippings before being moved to the shop next door.  It can take up to three firings and 18 hours to produce the perfect Fortune's kipper.  

Herring shoals move around our coast and until 1979 locally caught 'silver darlings' were landed at Whitby during their short season.  Today, sadly, due to EU quotas the Whitby herring fleet is no more but north-east Atlantic caught herring are used instead.  Frozen immediately after being caught, they are defrosted, gutted and cured by the current family members, Barry and Derek, using the same methods employed by William Fortune.  Kippers are one of our best British products and those from Fortune's Smokehouse are, I think, exceptional.  If you get to Whitby, a visit to Fortune's is a must and don't miss any chance to poke your head round the door of the wonderfully tarry smokehouse (ask permission, of course).  They used, occasionally, to smoke the odd salmon which came their way.  These days haddock, salmon and sides of bacon find their way to the smokehouse.

The aroma of grilling or frying kippers is appealing to me, but if you are concerned about lingering smells you could cook them using the "jugging method".  Place the kippers head down in a tall warmed jug, pour on boiling water to cover all but the tails and leave for 5-6 minutes.  Serve them up dressed with a knob of butter, a slice of buttered brown bread and a mug of tea. 

With my own newspaper-wrapped pair of kippers secured (sadly in The Sun rather than the Whitby Gazette) I headed for the Magpie Cafe for a take-away of cod and chips.  The Magpie is a relative newcomer, having been a cafe since only 1939.  Their fish and chips are far from a secret and they have won several awards in recent years so I was keen to try them, especially as they cook locally caught and sustainable fish as much as possible.  I hardly ever get to eat cod these days - the guilt trip is just too much - so, accepting that it was sustainably fished cod, I had to have it.  It was super-fresh and the crispy batter was excellent.  The chips were fat and fluffy but a little bit longer in the fryer to give them more colour and they would have been perfect.  Well worth queuing for but, for me, they didn't quite match up to my memories of Rick Stein's take-away in Padstow, Cornwall.

I had to finish my visit with tea and Yorkshire Brack at Botham's.  I thought Fortune's Smokehouse had been around a while but here we go again - the bakers Elizabeth Botham and Sons started out in 1865.  If you're familiar with Betty's tearooms in York, you will be disappointed by the look of this shop and tearooms.  What was once no doubt quite a grand space is somewhat faded, but you will get a very good cup of tea and a delicious slice or two of Yorkshire Brack.  This version of a tea loaf (somewhere between a cake and a bread in texture) is moist, treacly and packed with good quality dried fruits.  I think it needs no additions.  I can recommend the Stem Ginger Brack and the Plum Tea Loaf as well. 

If you can't get to Whitby, you can buy from Fortune's and Botham's on-line (Botham's also has a limited number of stockists).  The Magpie Cafe now has a wet fish shop (The Whitby Catch) a few doors down and they sell locally caught fish on-line too.

I didn't see any Bram Stocker devotees on my food trail.  Don't these people eat!