Give me a knife and a fish and I’m happy!
Graham Roberts grew up among fish boxes. ‘At the age of four I used to wash out boxes for my father who gave me a penny a box,’ he recalls. Graham’s father worked as a fisherman on the West Coast of Ireland and in 1979 he established the Connemara Smokehouse. Its white toned building stands at the tip of a land spit. From here a scenic view can be seen of the Atlantic and the coastal area of Connemara.
Today the business is run by Graham and his family, the second generation. ‘Ten people work here full-time,’ says Graham. A fact not to be taken for granted. The availability of all year round jobs is rare in this region which although picturesque can be inhospitable in winter. ‘Our work doesn’t make us rich, but we love it and we love living here,’ declares Graham.
Herzblut und hohe Qualitätsansprüche
That the Connemara Smokehouse team love their work is clear from the warm welcome and enthusiasm the employees show as they go about their tasks. The dedication to the job is mirrored too in the quality of the Connemara Smokehouse products. According to Graham, ‘Besides our passion we base our success on high quality standards and the use of traditional processing methods.’ The latter is fundamentally different to what is used in industrial manufacturing. Already at the first processing stage the difference is seen. ‘I fillet the fish myself. This way I can judge its quality the best.’
After filleting and removal of any bones the fish is dry salted. During the following 8 to 10 hours resting time the salt draws water out of the fish tissue. This is very different in some industrial processing where in some factories a salt solution is injected into the fish. Through this water stays inside the fish,’ explains Graham. Consumers end up buying a product which has a high water content and is not the same quality as pure smoked salmon.
A loyal customer base and word-of-mouth advertising
Graham can feel when the fish has the right consistency. As soon as that moment is reached, the salt is washed off and the fish is refrigerated overnight. The following day the ingenious kiln is lit using pure beech wood. ‘Other smokers swear by oak, but we feel it gives the product a bitter aftertaste. Beech wood on the other hand highlights the natural flavours in the fish,’ Explainscs Graham on his choice of wood. As soon as the temperature has reached 30 degrees Celsius the kiln is filled with the fish fillets. The low temperature is suitable for the traditional cold smoking of salmon. ‘At 30 degrees the natural fish oils in the tissue rise to the surface where it remains during the drying process,’ says Graham.
Smoking and drying takes, depending on the weather, about 16 to 20 hours. ‘If it’s very windy the smoke is pulled out of the chimney more quickly. When it’s rainy weather drying takes longer. Each day is different and we have to adapt our production to that.’ Despite this variable one factor remains the same: the quality of the finished product. Graham’s life long experience plays a deciding role here. ‘During each step of production I have to check the fish several times.’ Only when they have reached Grahams demands are they sliced and packed.
From then the salmon is mostly exported. ‘Our main destinations are France followed by Germany and other EU countries.’ Customers are mainly private individuals and small delicatessens. So how did the Roberts gain this international clientele? ‘We get a lot of tourists dropping in to see what we do. Most of them like how our products taste so much that they order after returning home. In addition, word-of-mouth advertising helps a lot,’ says Graham.
Fish from sustainable breeding grounds and fishing
Production can only be successful if the product is good from the beginning. Graham can rely on the fishermen who supply him. ‘Many of them are the sons of fishermen who worked with my father for years. They know what quality we expect and would rather not deliver anything than a bad catch.’
The fish that the Connemara Smokehouse use are not only from the surrounding waters, but are also MSC certified. An important aspect for the Roberts who process about 10 to 15 tonnes of fish yearly. ‘A large proportion of the salmon comes from sustainable organic salmon farms located a few kilometres from the nearby Clare Island, explains Graham. Only during the fishing season from June to July wild salmon is caught in the close by Killary Fjord. In addition, the Roberts process mackerel, herring and tuna which is line caught along the Irish coast.
Small but fine. That’s how things should stay.
Which products do customers like best? ‘The traditional smoked salmon is always a runner around Christmas, but throughout the year our honey roast smoked salmon is very popular.’ This is salmon that is hot roasted in a honey marinade and was in 2003 awarded the prize of ‘Best new seafood product in Ireland’. The smoking specialist has a secret tip for enjoying this, ‘Cut into small pieces and sprinkle along with some blue cheese on a salad.’ Even after so many years of daily working with fish, Graham still loves the taste and feels at home in the production hall. ‘I don’t want to make our business bigger because then I would have to spend all day in the office,’ and adds laughing, ‘Give me a knife and a fish and I’m happy!’
Connemara Smokehouse product range (summer 2018)
- Traditional Smoked Salmon (wild and organic)
- Roast Smoked Salmon
- Honey Roast Smoked Salmon
- Honey Roast Smoked Tuna
- Plain and Peppered Smoked Mackerel