Two places that I have lived in the Scottish Borders have a connection with smoked salmon. One is the little town of Duns in Berwickshire, which is where Farne Salmon is based. The other, the Ettrick Valley, is home to the Ettrick Valley Smokehouse. Farne salmon provide smoked salmon to supermarkets, amongst others, and their turnover exceeds £70 million. They have close on six hundred staff. The Ettrick Valley Smokehouse employs one person, the owner, Mike Roberts.
This article is about Mike’s salmon, which costs a bit more than most, but as the phrase goes, “pay your money and take your choice.” I know which my choice is: simply put; the Ettrick Valley Smokehouse has smoked salmon that is the best that I have ever tasted. At this point I must emphasise one thing: because Mike does everything by hand and the time he smokes, he assesses on a fish by fish basis, based on the weather that day, the size of the fish and his “instinct”, then no two batches of smoked salmon may be quite the same. In fact he often makes a point of customising his work according to some client’s specific requests, whether that might be heavily smoked, lightly smoked, smoked with wood chips from a certain distillery, or whatever.
The Ettrick Valley Smokehouse is little more than a wooden two room hut, built on the banks of the Ettrick river, next to Mike’s home. When I lived in the Ettrick Valley, Mike and his business had yet to arrive; he moved here years after I moved away. I stumbled across his produce, quite by chance, a few years ago. My partner and I had stopped in a country pub for some sustenance. I chose pate and she chose smoked salmon. “This is bloody amazing, try it!” she pushed her plate across the table. In my mind I was already answering; “No, thanks, I can guess what it will taste like”, but I took some to humour her. “Bloody hell, that is fantastic!” I grabbed another piece before she snatched the plate back. It was an odd sort of moment, a bit like being in a dusty, unkempt bric-a-brac shop and spotting a Turner water colour in a scuffed frame, propped up on the floor alongside a cardboard box of tarnished silver cutlery and an old brass cartridge shell filled with old umbrellas and walking canes. I asked where the salmon came from and was told the Ettrick Valley.
So what makes the Ettrick Valley Smokehouse fish so good? The answer is pretty straightforward and is probably the same answer that you’d get from many small, quality focused businesses. First off, start with the best salmon that you can get your hands on. Second; focus on flavour and not on profit. Third, do everything yourself and, if the best way, is the hardest way, then that’s how you do it. That’s how Mike does it. He starts early, finishes late, does everything himself and pours a lot of love into his produce. Compared with the price of smoked salmon from a supermarket, his fish isn’t cheap, but if you buy a Rolls Royce, then you haven’t chosen that car because it’s cheap and, one hopes, you’ll appreciate the attention to detail that has gone into the build.
Mike’s business started when he was asked to smoke salmon that fishermen had caught on the Tweed and its tributaries. He was then custom building fly rods. The fishermen he knew were often unhappy with the end result from other smokeries. Mike had a grandfather who was a fish smoker and who had passed him some recipes and know-how. After smoking a few sides of salmon for private clients, Mike’s business gradually built. He now smokes fish for a handful of restaurants and word is starting to get out. He has smoked specific fish for some certain people, but I not saying who, because they are the sort of the high profile people, who like to keep low profile. For the moment Mike remains a one-man-band, doing everything himself and anyone can buy from him; he has a website but I would recommending you actually phone him to see what he can offer you, because he spends more time smoking fish than keeping his website up to date. Last time I called in he was smoking some sea-reared rainbow trout that had come from Fort William. I tasted some, freshly smoked, very unlike the last fish that I’d bought from him; but that was, if I recall correctly, a salmon that had been netted at Berwick. The sea trout was gorgeous but more open textured, less oily and more delicately flavoured.
So next time you want some smoked salmon for that Friday night dinner party or maybe even for that lazy Sunday morning smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, if you want something that really tastes of fresh Scottish salmon that has been carefully smoked, get in touch with the Ettrick Valley Smokehouse.
The Ettrick Valley Smokehouse, Helmburn, Ettrickbridge, TD7 5JJ
Visits welcome by appointment only please.