On the way back from Alnwick, we went to Craster and to L. Robson & Sons Ltd, who have been smoking herrings for kippers there for over 130 years. It is an unprepossessing little sea village, with a small harbour that feels lost and drab. There is only a little bit of sand and a few sad looking boats. It is a good base for a walk along the coast towards the grand ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle and buying some fish, but not worth a visit on its own. Robsons is a functional shop, the restaurant was closed and the service cursory, but the fish has a good reputation far and wide, and you can buy online at www.kipper.co.uk or by mail order (01665 576 223). Kippers are £5.75/kg.
In contrast, Seahouses has managed to make the transition from a busy fishing harbour in the era of herring through to a tourist place much more smoothly. It is a larger harbour, plus has the benefit of the Farne Islands and Holy Island closer to, enabling the ecotourists to come for birds, seals and the occasional dolphin, Minke whale and orcas. Still, it is a much quieter harbour than I can remember from when young. Then, all the edges of the harbour would be full of moored fishing boats, where now you have a handful of fishing boats and many more pleasure boats taking trips to the islands.
I remember coming down to the harbour to choose fish, crabs and lobster freshly landed and direct from the boats, where now signs say “No Landing Of Shellfish”. The only hint at the former times are lobster pots and a fish van from Eyemouth with its incongruous saltire on its side. The piers and harbour had more of a hubbub then and lots of busyness, but progress moves us ever forwards to a better place, supposedly. I remember sitting at the end of the pier with legs dangling over the edge, surrounded by other kids, fishing with rod or just line; the joy of catching a pollock or when fishing from the shore a flattie, then the sweet and sour taste of food legitimately hunted and brought home to table. In Seahouses, MacKays has changed from a shop with wet fish counter into a palace for plastic seaside geegaws and kiss-me-quick hats, as well as body boards and wet suits, called the Farne Island Gift Shop (be careful as it is cash only).
In Seahouses, you must rootle out Swallow Fish that is hidden above the harbour in South Street – it is hard to find down a potholed, little road. Here they still smoke on site from fish that is landed in the harbour (probably only crab and lobster); you can sometimes see their van waiting patiently on the quayside. My uncle used to get his salmon smoked here. The Wilkin family have been smoking fish here since 1843 and claim to have invented the kipper, making this the oldest smokehouse in Northumberland. The shop is a lovely warm and small space, unchanged from my memories as if you step from 2011 into someone’s warm front parlour in the 1960s or 1910s. The service was warm and helpful in that quiet, reserved Northumbrian manner. I bought dressed crab and kippers, normal and deboned. Don’t buy the deboned as the shape is a fillet and feels wrong for a kipper, plus only the backbone has been removed and all the smaller bones are still there. You can buy other fish products, plus live crab, crab claws, crab meat and lobster. Swallow Fish is available in Fenwick Food Hall in Newcastle or by mail order or over the phone (01665 721 052) or www.swallowfish.co.uk. Dearer than Craster at £8.25/kg, but worth it. And what I love about their website is the section where you can meet their fishermen, which includes 2 of the Glad Tidings fleet as used for trips to the Farnes.
Our tasting notes from 12 of us:
- Swallow Fish: lightly smoked taste with succulent meaty flesh and nice level of oil. Really good example of kipper that have no artificial colours or smoke flavour.
- Robson & Son Craster Kippers: more smoky and saltier in flavour than the Swallow Fish kippers. Good taste and delicious meat with no artificial colours or smoke flavours.
Overall, Swallow Fish was our preferred kipper, but Craster Kippers are way ahead of other high street kippers, so go for either. Some time back I reviewed Loch Fyne and Marrbury Smokehouse Kippers, which are good, but still not as good as Swallow Fish or Robson of Craster Kippers.