The fire cracks and pops, sending the sooty, spicy scent of burning oak and beechwood into the salty Arbroath air. Perched over a pit made of a halved whiskey barrel, beheaded, gutted, salt-cured, and with backbones still intact, the haddock sizzle over the flame. Only permitted to be produced within a few miles of this very spot, Arbroath smokies, named after the town they’re sourced from, are one of Scotland’s most prized local products. Guarded under the European Union’s Protected Geographic Indication status—the same system that regulates Europe’s most prized cheese and wine—genuine Arbroath smokies are as rare as real champagne.
Some say the smokie’s origins stretch back to the Viking raids on Scotland. It’s true that some Norse settlers lived in Auchmithie, a small fishing village on the Scottish coast, and while they likely cured and smoked fish for centuries, our first knowledge of the exact smokie process dates to the 1800s. A mythic story of the delicacy’s origins holds that one day, fish left out to cure in the sun in Auchmithie were singed in a tragic fire; the resulting smoked fish were a true “lemons out of lemonade” tale. While that origin story is questionable, it is true that at the dawn of the 20th century, the town’s inhabitants moved a few miles away to Arbroath, and it was there that their traditional fish took on the name “Arbroath smokies.” Archival images show their traditional smoking process, and local Scottish chefs continue the tradition.
The gutted fish are tied into pairs before the salted haddock smoke to a golden singe. Smokies can be eaten plain, preferably fresh from the pit, but they’re also delicious in a traditional Scottish cullen skink soup, or made into a paté. With its crisp skin and lush, woodsy, oceanic flavor, the resulting delicacy has been known to inspire Scottish poets to melodic outpourings of delicate verse, as with this ode from a modern bard. No, it’s not Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse;” it’s Christopher MacLachan’s “To a Smokie:”
For haggis some wad live an’ dee
For Cullen skink or partan bree,
For Athole brose or kedgeree, Or hokey-pokey;
Gie me that treasure o’ the sea,
An Arbroath smokie.
Need to Know
Scottish food trivia time: What's the difference between an Arbroath smokie and that other classic Scottish smoked fish dish, the kipper? Answer: Smokies are hot-smoked haddock, meaning they're fully cooked, while kippers are cold-smoked herring, meaning they need to be cooked before being eaten.
Where to Try It
Arbroath Fisheries Website5 Seagate, Arbroath, Scotland, DD11 5BJ, United Kingdom
This local fish mart sells Arbroath Smokies as fresh as you can get them outside a barrel.