“My greatest priority always was, and still is, my family. The business was a one-woman show, so by necessity I had keep the it just as big as I could possibly carry by myself without neglecting my girls. I spent years juggling schools, shopping, cooking, keeping house, all the while trying to process fresh fish.”
What began in the late ’70s as a way to generate some income and keep away the doldrums of the cold Irish winter soon evolved into what is now Woodcock Smokery, a celebrated and in-demand operation that has stuck firmly to the ethical principles and ancient techniques it was founded upon.
For Sally Barnes, the founder and for many years the sole operator of Woodcock Smokery, curing is not simply about supplying good quality food, it is also about building community by supporting the local independent fishing industry, something that has only increased in difficulty over the years. Now, as the educational side of the business contines to grow, it has also become keeping culture and tradition alive, passing down a valuable skillset that connects us to the past and offers self-sufficiency for people into the future.
Out of adversity, against all the odds, and struggling with emerging challenges from bureaucracy to climate change, Sally has built something truly special. Her commitment to wild fishing and sustainable business has meant that she has maintained an award-winning, signature quality that few others can boast for over 40 years. From her home and studio by the Atlantic waters of the West Cork coastline, Sally shares her journey from fisherman’s wife to world-renowned artisan, the struggles of balancing family and business, and what it really means to live a life connected to the sea.
What are your earliest memories of the sea?
My earliest memories would be from Scotland where I was born, like the smell of hot tar on Campbeltown pier in Argyllshire. Whenever I smell that, it takes me right back. I remember falling underwater as a small child. It felt okay to be under the water. No panic. It was weird not being frightened until I was hauled back up! I also remember reading The Water-babies by Charles Kingsley and loving that book.
What led you to the art of fish preservation? Was it something that was in the family?
I was married to a commercial fisherman. We had no freezers or access to ice, so we had long discussions about how people managed to ‘hold’ fish and preserve it in the past. Smoking became the obvious choice.
My husband was drift-netting for herrings which were being sold only for the roes on the Japanese markets. We were shipping potential future generations of herring to the other side of the planet rather than let them reproduce in their native waters. Insanity rules in the fishing industry! Back then, if you wanted kippered herring, they came from Scotland. They were drenched in horrible dyes, coal-tar derivatives, and were so rubbery and salty that they were almost inedible.
We began experimenting with the herring using a tea chest with a hole in the bottom and a pan set into it filled with hardwood shavings. The chest was raised on concrete blocks, just off the ground, to enable airflow through the holes in the pan. We had mackerel hanging from spates at the top through their eyes with damp jute sacking to keep the smoke in. The fish were hot smoked and we knew when they were done because we’d hear a thump as they fell into the ash in the pan below them. Alternative techniques were obviously required!
When did these experiments begin to turn into a business, the Woodcock Smokery as we know it today?
It wasn’t long after those early experiments that we were left a bad debt by somebody who took the wild salmon catches from us: he smoked them, sold them, drank the profits, and didn’t pay us. This was in the late 1970s when there were great runs of wild salmon. Just after Ireland acceded to the European Community, heavily-subsidised chemical inputs for the farming sector were given to the State in exchange for the EC taking 95% of the fish in Irish waters. The same rate is still in place today, although the boats are allocated between 12% and 18% of demersal fish, such as herring and mackerel. So we were very much out of pocket then. After two years of trying to squeeze our money, our old partner offered to give us his AFOS mini-kiln in lieu of some of what he owed us. I was thrilled, as I was stuck at home with two children and no family here to help out with them. Whatever I was to try my hand at, it had to be home-based. The little kiln was a true God-send, as it could both cold-smoke and hot-smoke. It had temperature sensors and a simple timer. I continued to teach myself with whatever I could get my hands on … fish, wild game, cheese, eggs … it all went in there, just to see what would happen. I wrote to the UK Fisheries Advisory people at Torry Research Station in Aberdeen — where much work was done from the early 1950s — and they sent back a ‘how to’ pamphlet covering many varieties of fish. Brilliantly helpful, but written in the days before cold-chain, vacuum-packing, reliable chilling systems, so the salting regimes were something else. There was still a lot more trial and error until I had evolved a salting and smoking regime that suited our own palates. It was all great fun.
How has the business changed over the years?
It is the norm to ‘grow’ a business in our society, as all of the business training courses which I attended informed me. This caused me several problems, which still pertain to this day in some ways. My choice to work only with wild food and local suppliers — unpredictable at the best of times — meant that I would never be able to service larger retailers. But the biggest hurdle to expansion was my home life. My greatest priority always was, and still is, my family. The business was a one-woman show and there was no family around to help out on busy days in the smokery, so by necessity I had to keep the business just as big as I could possibly carry by myself without neglecting my girls. I spent years juggling schools, shopping, cooking, keeping house, all the while trying to process fresh fish.
After smoking fish for almost ten years I finally had my techniques calibrated to my satisfaction. Also around this time, my girls became ready for secondary school, which meant I had more time for myself and more time to work on the business. I undertook some Open University courses because I was still stuck back at home. I studied Food Production Systems which gave me a proper understanding of what was actually going on in the various techniques I had evolved over those years. I began to build confidence in my abilities and intuition. Processing became much more fun and the experiments continued with different species. My kippers were joyful. I had direct access to day-boat, inshore fisheries. The freshest fish. At the time prices were appallingly low, so I was able to increase our combined incomes, particularly during the winter months when storms might keep my husband on land without any income at all. Blissful! The following year, 1993, I did another OU course, this time in Oceanography, to better understand the fish themselves, and that too was brilliant. I loved having my own financial independence, a big change for me, and of course a big help for our family. I’d been training for teaching in London prior to meeting the fisherman and moving here. I didn’t miss that at all, but strangely enough, after all these years, teaching has become a means of supporting myself now!
Woodcock Smokery has a strong commitment to local and sustainable fishing. Has that been difficult to maintain over the years?
I made a commitment to work only with wild fish, despite the recent proliferation of fish farms here. Yuk! Early on, there were no inspectors. Now there are far too bloody many and they are not educated in artisan production at all, so this is driving me bonkers. There is no respect or interest in learning from me. I have not altered any of my production methods but now have huge expenses with compulsory testing and so on. And the paper trails they require us to create for them are endless.
Nowadays, and especially after the ban on drift-netting at sea for wild salmon, there are almost no inshore fisherfolk left here. Those which still exist are skippered by old men. No young people are involved. Fish are now held on board for up to a week before being landed, partly due to fuel and insurance expenses, but also due to the lack of stocks inshore, so they motor much further out to sea to catch anything and tend to stay out until it’s time to meet the trucks taking their catches off to Europe on ferries. Very little is actually processed here. I decided very early on not to “grow” the business, which was what authorities drove people towards. Stocks are so variable year on year, it seemed nuts to try to increase production to satisfy big outlets when there is no guarantee that we could provide and cover the orders. Small and adaptable worked.
Here in Australia, we’re finally starting to become more aware of the negative impacts of salmon farming after years of believing it was a healthy and sustainable option. Is it a similar situation in the UK?
I could not enter any of our fabulous wild fish products in the Irish National Organic Awards, as wild fish cannot be “certified” by those who certify farmed fish. It’s insane. The certifying bodies don’t know what the wild fish are eating. Whatever it is, it is natural and has no dyes or nasty additives. Our Sea Fisheries Boards are hell-bent on turning this country’s coasts into one big dirty salmon farm, removing far too much baitfish to make pellets and thereby starving other species of wild fish, and seabirds, marine mammals … the list goes on. It’s all for such tiny profits too.
With all your many years of experience and all that we now know about climate change, what is your global outlook and how do you feel about the future of the ocean?
I fear for the future of all people making their living from the oceans now. Plastic pollution, agri-runoff, plankton dying off … it is bleak indeed. And farming is far from the “sustainable” activity that their marketing would infer. Stocks of sprat here are being decimated, for a pittance, to make pellets for farms. Sprat are great food for humans, rich in oils and nutrients, and still relatively cheap. If only more chefs would begin to utilise them in their kitchens! The pollution caused by open-cage fin-fish farming is a total disaster environmentally. They dye the feed and sometimes add chemicals to keep the salmon male. It’s quite nefarious, and yet they are permitted to call the fish “organic”. Almost all the farms here are owned by Norwegian multi-national companies too, with shareholders in Norway. They get the cash and we get left with debris, pollution, new diseases, and escapees from the farms that interfere with our genetically precise and wondrous wild Salmon. Idiotic. Greed is so destructive on all levels.
You must have seen some incredible things, living and working in this wild and ancient environment. Are there any moments that stand out as being particularly special?
You never know what you will encounter next out on the water! There are so many different beasts and birds out there. My husband Colin knew every kind of creature, which was a joy and pleasure each time we were in the boat. Except for the day when we were salmon fishing, and he cried out “Christ what’s that!?”. I immediately sat on the bilge in terror: if he didn’t know what it was. It turned out to be a leatherback turtle, a massive creature, truly beautiful. Initially, all that was visible was her ridged black back, which reminded me of another age. The dinosaur age. She swam into our salmon nets, entangling herself, so we had to come alongside and try to free her. She was trying to climb into the boat, which was only eighteen-foot-long and four feet wide. The boat tipped over horribly towards her as Colin leaned out to extricate her from the mesh. I had to throw my weight against the opposite side of the hull to try to keep us from capsizing. Those huge sad eyes. That enormous head, much larger than any human head I had ever been so close to. Eventually, we managed to untangle and release her, and she fled off with this clumsy butterfly stroke. She fled from the boat at great speed on the surface of the sea only to crash into the other end of the net! We managed to catch her three more times before she finally took an alternative direction and sped away towards the horizon. What a sight!
Photos by Max Jones.