‘Arbroath Smokies’ are prepared using traditional smoking methods dating back centuries. The fish are salted, tied in pairs using hemp twine, and left overnight to dry. Once salted and dried, they are hung on sticks over a special barrel containing a hardwood fire to smoke. Once the fish are hung over the fire, the top of the barrel is covered with a lid and sealed around the edges with wet jute sacks (the water prevents the jute sacks from catching fire).
All of this serves to create a very hot, humid and smoky atmosphere. The intense heat and thick smoke is essential if the fish are to be cooked, not burned, and to have the strong, smoky taste and aroma expected from ‘Arbroath Smokies’
The original ‘Arbroath’ Smokie hails from a small fishing village called Auchmithie, 3 miles north of Arbroath. The first known recording of the village was in the Chartulary Records of Arbroath Abbey in 1434, though there is evidence to suggest it may go back to the Viking raids of the early 11th century.
Since the ‘Smokie’ does indeed follow a process similar to smoking processes carried out to this day in parts of Scandinavia, may in itself provide another clue as to the village’s origin and identity.
At the end of the 18th century the village supported some 180 souls and 6 fishing boats. By the end of the 19th Century the village was in its heyday with a population of around 400, with 12 white fishing boats, 6 large herring boats and 20 or so smaller boats engaged in lobster and crab fishing.
There are several theories put forward as to the true origin of the ‘Arbroath Smokie’ itself. One of the most popular relates to a cottage in Auchmithie in which haddocks were hanging up to be dried for preservation purposes. Unfortunately a fire broke out and burned the cottage to the ground. It was whilst sifting through the ashes, wood, dust and associated debris that the ‘Smokies’ were discovered. This romanticised version of the ‘Smokie’s’ origin is commonly heard around Arbroath’s ‘Fit o’ the Toon’ district, and the story probably holds as much water as the cremated fish in question! But be that as it may! The erstwhile fishwives, smoking the fish on sticks, originally put them over halved whisky barrels with open fires beneath. With the smoke trapped under layers of coarse sacking, provided by the jute mills in the local area, the fish ‘cooked’ to perfection.
Following the heyday of the late 19th century, the fisher people began to move to Arbroath, lured by the promise of better housing, a better harbour, and the overall better prospects on offer by the Town Council of the time. They, with their skills and their labours, settled in the area and became one of the greatest contributors to Arbroath’s economy.
Their ‘Smokie’ inadvertently created something which was to become the signature of Arbroath, and which perhaps more than any other single thing, made Arbroath a household word throughout the country and overseas.
The ‘Arbroath Smokie’ can perhaps thus be seen as the only remaining living legacy of Auchmithie’s fishing community, and one for which it gets little credit. In 2004, the European Commission registered the designation ‘Arbroath Smokies’ as a Protected Geographical Indication under the EU’s Protected Food Name Scheme, acknowledging its unique status.