"We make smoke, that's what we do." Frank Hederman had just walked in to greet us at Belvelly Smoke House, his smoke house and the oldest - and only - natural smoke house in Ireland. He couldn't have come a moment sooner, as we'd just had a rushed interaction with one of his colleagues who, outfitted in gloves, white coat and hair net, had opened the door to the cold smoker, pointed in, closed it and unceremoniously given us a taste of their smoked salmon. It had taken us quite a while to find the place and we were a little crestfallen about the blink-and-you'll-miss-it tour. So, like I said, Frank couldn't have shown up at a better time. With him, we lingered at the door of the smoking room.
A batch of smoked salmon had just been brought out and, with us out of his hair, the white coated gentleman of few words was going about the business of checking for stray bones and sealing the gorgeous orange slabs in plastic. Now hanging in the smoker were sides of haddock. On shelves beside them were all sorts of other treats, which Frank introduced to us one by one. "We smoke butter, sun-blanched tomatoes, garlic." He took one of the heads in his hand and showed us its slightly bronzed color. Mussels, hundreds of them, covered long trays. "The way they hold flavor..." he gushed. They even smoke oats for a man who makes oatcakes. "We're like Tabasco or Lee & Perrins," he said comparing his smoke to a condiment. "Just adding a little bit of flavor."
The difference here is that they're not bottling the smoke, they're letting it waft over salmon, haddock, whole mackerel, silver eel (Frank's favorite) and all those other non-fishy delights. And even if he is kind of "in the business of making smoke," what Frank Hederman's renowned for is his smoked salmon. So, maybe the Tabasco reference is more apt because of the unique mastery of that little bit of flavor. There's hot sauce and then there's tabasco. There's smoked salmon and then there's Frank Hederman's smoked salmon. After you've tasted it, it's hard not to feel like all the other smoked salmon you've had has been too salty, too oily, too strong, too smokey, "messed with too much" to borrow a phrase from Gertie. There's a reason gourmet shops in London, fine dining institutions and even the caterers of Queen Elizabeth's birthday party, all call on Frank for his salmon. It's sorta perfect.
"Salmon gets you access," Frank said with a wry smile after a string of
stories about boating with the Kennedys, staying in a London penthouse on the dime of Russian restauranteurs, inking a
deal with gourmet markets in Dubai. At a pub, I may have joked, "are
you blowing smoke?" In his smokehouse, after tasting the product, it
was pretty clear that he wasn't. The stuff is that good. The anecdotes were regaled with a normal-guy-in-extraordinary-situations candor. I mean, as 'normal' a guy as any minor celebrity who was profiled in the New York Times as the Steinway of smoked salmon. ("Mr. Hederman smokes fish, which is a little like saying Steinway makes pianos") Frank's been at this for 25 years, honing the craft/perfecting the science/mastering the art/making a name for himself and his product.
It starts with the fish, of course, farmed in Clare County, on the western coast of Ireland. Sometimes he uses wild salmon, but the sustainability of the organically farmed fish is appealing and the quality more consistent. Of course, they've been treated like gold. Only the best. Then, within 24 hours of being fished out of the water, they're in Belvelly Smoke House, near the southern coast, being filleted, salt cured and hung up in the cold smoke room. "Did you
notice how it wasn't oily at all?" Oh, did I. Hanging keeps the fish from developing an over-smoked crust and from sitting in its fat. Suspended, the salmon bathes in smoke piped in from the next door
burning chamber. Instead of oak, Frank uses beech, a wood with less
tannins for a much more subtle flavor. The beech chips come from the
UK, all a specific size for precise burning speed. Then, anywhere up to
20 hours later, the famous salmon is done.
Belvelly Smoke House is tucked at the end of a gravel drive away, just a few feet away from an old stone arched bridge and a ruined castle tower. It doesn't get more Irish than this. Frank lives in the house right beside it with his wife and children - he swears he can't even smell the smoke anymore. It's a small batch operation, a careful, thoughtful business that turns out a luxury product at its most delicious. We had our Irish-smoked Irish salmon this afternoon for lunch, at a picnic table on the side of the road, on crackers with English mustard and an avocado from who knows where. We were sure to cut it just like Frank told us to, not at an angle or by skimming off the top, but in a slice straight down top to bottom. "That way you get all the layers of flavor." My jacket still smells like beech smoke.