SINCE 1979, Sally Fern Barnes has been perfecting the art of smoking wild Irish fish, perched on top of a windy hill near Castletownshend in West Cork.
Sitting around the wooden table in her kitchen, the Aga taking the chill off the room, we sit digging into some still warm hot-smoked mackerel, crusty bread and a pot of tea — made with leaves, not bags, she says.
Sally is one of the original pioneer women of West Cork Food who settled here in the 1970s making what are now some of Ireland’s most well-loved and iconic foods: wives of men preoccupied with the procurement of food by growing, raising and fishing while they turned what couldn’t be sold as primary foods into the prized artisan foods of today: Milleens, Gubbeen, Durrus, Coolea, and of, course, Woodcock Smokery.
Married many a year to Colin, a fisherman from whom she is since divorced, Sally found herself presented with fresh fish, wild salmon among them, until the fish stocks collapsed, and Ireland implemented a ban on wild salmon fishing at sea.
“Ireland had a very healthy salmon population until 1973/74 when we acceded to the EU, and gave away 95% of Irish fisheries,” says Sally.
Coupled with poor regulation on pollution from slurry tanks, and pesticide and herbicide run-off leeching into streams and rivers, many stocks of river fish, including salmon, were the subject of fish kills in huge numbers. Decimation of the gravel beds salmon spawned in added to the problems, until the freshwater salmon fishery was also on its knees.
Despite all these obstacles, Sally continued to source the fish for her smokery, including wild Irish salmon (“a very smart creature”), from trusted and licenced sources. Now, all of her salmon is from a small band of salmon fishermen operating in the Blackwater River.
Why must it be wild fish or nothing at all?
“Years ago,” explains Sally, “I went to an exhibition in Glasgow and BP had a stand there selling food pellets for fish farms. I wanted to know what have BP, a petroleum company, got to do with food. I did some research and discovered that there’s a bacterium that grows on the waxy substrate from the oil refining industry and that’s what they were making pellets for salmon farms with.
“At the time, the fishing authorities in Ireland were telling the fishing industry that the future for Irish fishing is off-shore salmon farms. They were thinking of sustainability in terms of economics rather than environmentalism.
“Living in a country, but on the edge of it, we’re all looking inland to the capital. We should be looking out from our beaches, because our next nearest neighbours are just across the water. As a fishing fraternity, the water doesn’t divide us, it unites us.”
In the 40 years since Sally began smoking wild fish from her small processing unit in the yard of her family home, she has come to acquire great knowledge on everything that links the ocean and its bounty; smoke curing and working with nature and natural processes. Like the magnificent salmon of Irish folklore, Sally is a modern day Fionn brimming with an excess of knowledge.
Now it seems the time has come to place as much of that knowledge as possible in other people — inviting others to devour the salmon and receive all the knowledge of the world.
Since 2019, through Neil’s Yard in London, who has stocked Sally’s wild smoked salmon every Christmas for years, she connected with 35-year-old Max Jones — a cheesemonger and film maker, and someone Sally describes as “A collector of old and traditional skills”.
“Max contacted me and asked if he could come and learn from me the intricacies of smoke-curing fish,” says Sally.
Offering bed and board in exchange for labour, Sally and Max have struck up a mentor and mentee relationship firmly rooted in a special friendship, leading to a rejuvenation of the vision and ambition for Woodcock Smokery.
Towards the end of 2019, Sally made the decision to set up a new space from where she could impart her knowledge in the art of smoke curing wild fish: to culinary students, chefs, food producers and curious amateurs too.
Named The Keep, adjacent to the smokery itself, Sally will run masterclasses in the art of preserving wild fish.
“My hope is that the masterclasses will help keep and preserve the sustainable, ancient and time-honoured traditional ways of making our food,” Sally says — “without chemical interventions, without mass production, working with limited stock and supplying our local community.
“I need to share the knowledge. Over the years I’ve had students from universities and people who want to come and see what I do, and I love to share what I know with them, but I didn’t have a sensible place to host them.
“I started smoking fish because Colin used to bring home the most wonderful fresh fish. I would boil, grill and souse the fish — every possible connotation!
“I started researching how people preserved fish in times gone by: salting, drying, pickling and sugared; systems for conserving bounties of nature to make it available to us later, but smoking was the way to go for me.
“Mackerel was cheap and abundant. I had a tea chest with a hole in the bottom where I put a little metal pan filled with wood shavings; lit the shavings and hung the mackerel across the top of the tea chest,with a wet sack across the top in case of accidents. And that’s how I started to teach myself about smoking.
“The last year Colin fished for wild salmon, he didn’t get paid. We were left a huge debt after paying the crew. Eventually, we received a kiln by way of settling the debt. The tea chest with the hole in the bottom was fun, but that was hot smoked. What I really wanted to do was cold smoked salmon, knowing it was a product that would sell well at Christmas time, which was the leanest time of year for fishing.
“I was at home with two small children, no family around me, and Colin at sea fishing all the time so I couldn’t go out to work, so I taught myself how to use the kiln and to cold smoke fish as a way to earn some money.”
Over the years, Sally’s careful attention and the art of smoke curing has seen much praise for her smoked fish. Her most proud moment came when she was awarded Supreme Champion at the 2007 Great Taste awards in the UK, where her Smoked Wild Irish Salmon was chosen as the best out of 6,000 products.
As Sally admits that the physical act of carrying out her life’s work becomes more difficult to do, notwithstanding the biting cold and the hand-forged nature of the entire process, the time is now right for The Keep to be the place of learning she has always wanted.
While many seek to closely guard the secrets of their labour, Sally understands the importance of passing on the knowledge and skills she has acquired. She has been a custodian of her art for 40 years, and now is the time to ensure that all she has mastered is conveyed to a new generation; that the artistry will find a new master to obey.
Workshops at The Keep begin from May: Full Day Smoking Workshop: €240 pp inc lunch and tea break; Half Day Smoking Workshop: €165 pp inc tasting Coastal Harvest: €165 pp inc foraging trip and lunch; Tastings: €65 pp Wild Irish Salmon Experience: €1,200 pp — a three-day immersive course from landing the fish, curing, smoking and eating your own smoked wild Irish salmon.
Full details and on the online shop of the full range of Sally’s smoked fish, including her award winning wild Irish salmon), visit: www.woodcocksmokery.com