Q&A: Christopher West, Hebridean Smokehouse

By

Lindsey Partos, SeafoodSource contributing editor, reporting from Paris

Published on
September 17, 2009

Hebridean Smokehouse, a supplier of premium peat-smoked salmon and sea trout based on the island of North Uist, part of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, has launched a new range of premium smoked-seafood butters. The company’s new three-product range, launched last week, is comprised of peat-smoked salmon butter with lemon and dill; peat-smoked scallop butter with parsley, sage and lemon; and peat-smoked lobster butter with basil and lime.

SeafoodSource spoke with Christopher West, general manager of Hebridean Smokehouse, to find out more about this small producer, which caters to the high end of the smoked seafood market.

Partos: How do you make your smoked fish?
West:
We’ve been peat-smoking here since 1983. There are no trees on the island, so peat is the obvious source for smoking. We use a very old-fashioned method — a peat fire in a little smoked box. All our fish is hand-sliced, literally using a hand-held single blade. While labor intensive — there are no machines — this gives us the advantage of supreme quality control.
 
Our market positioning is to be the best possible and we produce premium luxury products. We’re not, and will never be, in the mass market. While we’re a small operation with 12 full time employees, we supply around the world.
 
Do you farm your salmon?
Yes, but we farm genuine native Scottish salmon stock, not Norwegian or Chilean crosses. From an environmental point of view the native fish is well suited, and to date we have not had any problems with disease or parasites. Further, when farmed stocks escape to the wild, this throws up genetic concerns for the wild stocks. But if we did have escapes, which we haven’t yet, the fish would move from like to like.
 
Essentially, the native salmon also grow more slowly than a cross. It takes about three years for our salmon to grow from the egg to roughly 3.5 kilos; a cross would typically take 10 months less to reach the same weight. The fact that our fish grow more slowly is significant because they become a “tighter” fish and do not have the fat lines. The growth rate also has an impact on flavor, texture and makes them great for smoking.

Tell me more about your peat-smoked range.
For example, in UK retailer Waitrose and fine food shop Fortnum and Mason, our range includes peat-smoked salmon and sea trout, peat-smoked lobster tail and peat-smoked scallops. A 250-gram pack of the peat-smoked salmon retails at about GBP 14.95 and between GBP 7.95 and 8.50 for the 125-gram.

Why launch the butter line? 
The butters evolved from experiments in my own kitchen — I’m a chef — and we wanted to formulate a product that would work in a variety of ways. We spent about a year formulating the butters, with much trial and error. It was one thing making the butter in my kitchen, but another thing altogether scaling up to a semi-industrialized process. The butters are an opportunity for the company to make use of existing products. We’re really lucky in that we can source salmon, lobster and scallops from the islands.

At room temperature the butter is soft enough to beat and perfect for fresh and dried pasta. All the aromatic notes from our peat-smoked fish are present in the butter. The butters can also be folded into risottos, and are equally delicious on crackers, bread or Scottish oatcakes.
 
In addition to your smoked seafood, what other ingredients are in the butters?
We use the best Scottish ingredients available. A key ingredient in our butters is “crowdie,” which is a sort of Scottish cream cheese. It’s a highland delicacy, drier in texture than commercial cream cheeses. Traditionally, crowdie was made from whey produced during butter making. We source our crowdie from Connage dairy, which won the “Best Cheese in Scotland” award for its crowdie at last year’s British Cheese Awards. The herbs used in the butters are sourced from a farm just outside of Dundee.
 
How much do the butters cost?
The 140-gram pots have a recommended retail price of GPB 6.95 for the smoked salmon, GBP 7.95 for the smoked scallops and GPB 10.95 for the super premium lobster-tail butter.

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