Two Tweed fishermen hope their Border smoked salmon can travel as far as Japan, thanks to their newly-opened Ettrick Valley Smokehouse in Ettrickbridge.
Passionate anglers Mick Bell and Mike Roberts, who run Bloke Fly Rods, first noticed a niche for smoking local rod-caught salmon landed by the thousands of fishermen who flock, and pay up to a £1,000 a beat, to sink a hook into the Borders’ famous salmon rivers. “Every salmon caught on the Tweed system is worth £8,000 to the Borders economy,” Mike said, “so when you’re holding that much in your hands, you want to smoke it to the best of your ability. After all, we want these fishermen to keep coming back. At any stage in the smoking, I know whose fish it is, and what’s been done to it, because these salmon are that important to the local economy.
“After we experimented with different brines and glazes, we were happy we’d come up with something better than you can buy,” Mick added. “We saw a niche, because not many fisherman want to drive miles to get their fish smoked, or have to wait three months to get it back.”
Mick and Mike now pick up fish, and within a week deliver it back deliciously smoked.
Business boomed , so they spent £20,000 turning a delapidated timber shack, built by the Home Office as a billet hut in the Second World War, into a smokehouse by the banks of the Ettrick Water. The renovation was self-funded by Bloke Fly Rods, plus a £4,000 small business grant from Scottish Gateway, to whom Mike paid warm tribute.
“Councillor Vicky Davidson and Chris Trotman of Business Gateway were fantastic, a big help,” he said.
To expand their business, the pair conscientiously source wild salmon from a Tweed netsman, and farmed salmon from the Outer Hebrides.
“Salmon farms, in the most evil cases, can be incredibly damaging to the environment,” Mick explained, “interfering with migrations of wild sea trout, and infesting the fish with sea lice.
“We wanted to secure an organic, sustainable source as natural as possible, with cages placed in tidal water so the salmon use their muscles to swim against the current, and burn up fatty deposits. Poor quality farmed smoked salmon can be slimy, greasy and textureless. We know how good smoked salmon should taste, and we’re confident our farmed salmon is as close to wild as we can make it.”
Mike first dry cures the sides of salmon with dark muscovado sugar, salt and fresh dill for 12 hours, and then, for a further cure, brushes on Macallan single malt and black treacle, before cold-smoking the fillets for 12 hours, or hot-smoking them for two hours at 150 to 180 degrees Celsius, using oak chippings sourced from a carpenter on the nearby Bowhill Estate.
“We’re smoking 200 salmon a month, but we’re aiming to be doing between 300 and 400 a week,” Mike said. “Each cycle is a three-day process, and you need to be working solidly seven days a week: you can destroy everything if you let the fish get too hot or salty.”
Their Outer Hebrides farmed salmon costs £32 a kilo, and their wild Tweed salmon £70 a kilo, which can be bought direct from their smokehouse in Ettrickbridge. However, they have also got plans to start mail order from their website www.evsh.co.uk in the next few months.
“Business is going quicker than we thought it would,” Mick said, and there’s already a healthy hunger for their Border smoked salmon at local hotels and restaurants, with Windlestraw Lodge, Carfraemill, the Horseshoe Inn, the Roxburghe Hotel, Buccleuch Arms, Gordon Arms, Cross Keys in Ettrickbridge, and soon the County Hotel in Selkirk too, all placing Ettrick smoked salmon on their menus.
But Mick and Mike’s ambitions extend beyond the Borders.
“My intention is to have a nationwide advertising campaign before Christmas,” Mick revealed.“I really want to hit London, and Europe – in France, Germany, Switzerland and Holland, and in Japan. Can you think of anything better than getting it into their major sushi restaurants?”
The entrepreneurs have also smoked scallops, lobster, and even Selkirk butcher Waters’ haggis, but they are being careful to perfect the smoked salmon first, before moving onto, for example, smoked game.
However, that doesn’t stop them experimenting. “Ettrickbridge has the biggest bank of wild garlic,” Mick said, “so we dried some of the leaves and added them to the sawdust to give a garlic smoke to the scallops, which was fantastic.
“We treat our salmon with respect fit for the king of fish,” he added.