Welcome back to The Last Bite, our new column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up? Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. Today, we travel to Northumberland to visit L. Robson & Sons, one of the last herring smokehouses in Britain.
The butterflied smoked herring has been part of British cuisine for centuries but kippers—the name given to the fish when sliced and smoked in this way—from the small village of Craster in Northumberland are revered across the world.
The story of how this happened is indelibly linked with L. Robson & Sons. The Robsons have been smoking herring and selling their kippers in a stone-built smokehouse for almost 100 years. They are one of the few in the region still working in this traditional way.
A century ago, things in Craster would have looked very different. Neil Robson is the great-grandson of the founder and owns the business with his father Alan. At the turn of the 20th century, Robson's great-grandfather rented the smokehouse from the Craster family. At that time, herring were still caught close to the coastal village.
"If they had a good season, they could pay the rent. If they didn't, somebody else had a bash at it the following year," Robson says. "So he [his great-grandfather] must've had a few good years and eventually set it up."
The business grew but remained seasonal, dependent on catching herring from May to September. Robson remembers helping out as a kid, just as his own daughters do today. He recounts the heyday of the kipper season, when South Northumberland had a strong mining industry. People would descend on Craster during the fortnight-long pit holidays and buy masses of kippers. Others had different reasons for buying in bulk.
"We had a guy who worked for WHSmith, who distributed all the papers," Robson remembers. "We used to take a little box with two pair of kippers in. He used to go away with about 200 of those on a Friday and go round the clubs and sell them in Newcastle!"
Plenty has changed since then. For one, the fish is no longer caught locally. The amount of herring caught in Northumberland was plentiful for many decades, but then overfishing became a problem. The numbers declined in the 1970s and in 1977, a ban on herring fishing on the east coast was introduced, which lasted until 1981. This had an instant effect.
"At North Shields, there were probably about tenor 12 kipperers and overnight they were gone," Robson says.
There used to be four kipper yards in Craster but today, Robson is the only one. After a time using herring from Scotland and Iceland, his fish now comes from Norway, where there is no shortage. This means Craster kippers are available throughout the year.
One man who has seen more change than anyone in Craster is Robson's father Alan, who can remember going down to the pier on a horse and cart with his own father to collect the herring. He still comes in daily and Robson hopes that his own daughters will get more involved with L. Robson & Sons, making it a fifth-generation family business. But he's in no rush for that just yet.
"I want them to have a bit of a life first," he says.
How the Craster kipper is made is essentially the same as it ever was, with a few changes for modernisation. The herring are now split on a machine—rather than by the hands of the herring girls—before being placed into brine.
According to George Gregory, who oversees the smokehouses, this is the main part of the process—and time is crucial.
"The whole herring's in there for about 20 minutes," he says. "If you go just over 20 minutes, they're too salty."
After this, the herring are placed onto stainless steel tenter-sticks and hooks. Back when Gregory started here 18 years ago, these were rudimentary wooden sticks with nails hammered in. Once on the hooks, they are hung in the smokehouse.
While the changes in technology and production at L. Robson & Sons have been significant, the smoking has not changed. Oak sawdust and whitewood shavings are piled on the floor of the smokehouse and lit to smoke the herring for between 14 and 16 hours.
"We don't want it to burn away too fiercely, just to smoulder away," Gregory says.
The Craster smokehouses are dark, high, and narrow. Two have burnt down in the past. Their walls are covered in pitch black tar and, once the fires are lit and the doors are shut, the only light that enters is from the high-level vents from which the smoke pours. Walk outside the working smokehouse and you will see grey plumes of smoke bellowing out and drifting around, giving the area a distinctive and mouth-watering smell.
Step inside one, though, and you'll soon realise that it's best not to spend very long in there, at least if you want to retain the power of vision and speech. From a distance the smoke is pleasant but it's also mightily strong and hard to get rid of. "It gets into your skin after a little while. And it doesn't matter what you use you can't get it out," says Gregory, a man who would know.
Lingering smell aside, he enjoys the work and the kippers, which he recommends in crusty bread.
"You cannot beat it. Nice and simple," he says.
After trying them myself, it is hard to disagree.
Robson & Sons is perhaps not an empire but it is definitely an institution—and one with great importance to the local community. As well as the smokehouse, the family has a shop and a popular restaurant overlooking the harbour, which serves a variety of dishes of their famous seafood. Although the hustle and bustle of the pit holidays has long gone, the season for sampling the kippers at Craster is longer than ever.
With their product now available year-round, L. Robson & Sons has unsurprisingly grown. Though their produce is popular with tourists, much of their business comes from supplying Waitrose, as they have done for two decades.
"I've no regrets about going with a supermarket because it's enabled us [to have] full-time work for 15 people every week," Robson says.
Despite lucrative offers from other supermarkets and potential expansion, Robson is clear that he wants to stay where his family have worked for over a century. When local council asked if he wanted to set up business in a proposed food park, Robson was not interested.
"You lose your identity. This [the smokehouse] would have ended up a bit more of a museum. It'd be so easy to have got dragged into, 'Oh let's have another factory and produce tonnes of them.' But it wouldn't have been Craster kippers, in my thoughts."
All photos by Sarah Campbell.