Tales from End to End
The Tale of the Kipper
by Neil Robson
Craster is a delightful village with numerous local attractions. Just to the north are the remains of the magnificent Dunstanburgh Castle that dates from the 1300s and to the south is Howick Hall, built in 1782 and the home of Earl Grey, the great social reformer and tea enthusiast.
However, we like to think that Craster’s real fame comes from the kippers that our family have been producing for four generations. Around 1900, the North Sea was alive with herring fish and there were some twenty boats bringing herrings to the four herring-kipper yards which we had in the village at that time. The herring used to be landed in our small village harbour and then taken directly to the curing sheds. Here they were sorted. Some were salted down in barrels for export to Europe and the remainder were kippered.
At that time Craster, together with Seahouses a little way up the coast, were the kipper capitals of England. Over 25,000 herring a day were being smoked. Scottish fishwives did much of the work of gutting the fish. They lived in ramshackle huts called ‘kip’ houses’. These were only suitable for sleeping in and that’s where the phrase ‘having a kip’ comes from.
Our company, L. Robson & Sons Ltd, is now the only kipper house left in the village. We are a fourth generation family business and we specialise in using the traditional method of oak smoking kippers and also salmon. We still cure the fish in the original smokehouses which are 130 years old.
Over the years Craster kippers have earned an enviable reputation as one of the finest kippers in Britain. This acclaim has been increased by endorsement on numerous television programmes and the approval of many of the country’s top chefs. To produce a top quality kipper requires using only top quality raw materials and this is the reason for our success. Only the plumpest herrings with the correct oil content are used to produce Craster kippers.
The actual process of changing the ‘silver darlings’ into our renowned kippers sounds simple enough. First, the herring are split on a machine capable of splitting 500kg of fish an hour. This machine replaces the numerous ‘herring girls’ that used to split the herrings by hand. Then the herring are placed in a brine solution of plain salt and water for a pre-determined length of time. This varies according to the size of the fish. Lastly, they are hung on tenter hooks and placed in the cavernous smokehouses. Fires made of whitewood shavings and oak sawdust are lit under the rows of herring and the wood smoulders away for up to 16 hours to cure the fish and make them ready for sale as Craster kippers.
Recent years have seen enormous changes in the fishing industry. In order to conserve North Sea fish stocks, limits have been placed on the numbers that can be caught; new hygiene requirements have needed extra financing and the growth of pre-packed supermarket sales has taken its toll on the traditional fish-smoker. However, at our family business we have upgraded parts of the factory whilst at the same time retaining the original smokehouses and the traditional methods. By doing this, we believe we have found a niche in the market to supply high quality fish products directly to the smaller retailer as well as to the general public through mail order requests.
Oak smoked Craster Kippers, Craster Fillets and Craster salmon can be delivered next day to all parts of the UK mainland and the company has weekly deliveries throughout the North East.