The landscape surrounding the Staal Smokehouse must be flatter than the nearby sea. Dropping down from the twisting, vaulted, Yorkshire Wolds into the plains of Holderness, you know industry has altered as much as the gradient.
Smoking fish is a process encased in imagery; historic films of men hoisting poles laden with spilt mackerel, high into smoking towers. A grey haze distorting the view of a gymnast carefully balancing in the racks twenty feet above.
However, the image has changed. Stark white wash-down walls, shimmering stainless steel and the hum of vacuum packing machines are smoking it its current form.
Thankfully the Staal Smokehouse has managed to wrestle the potential beige trappings of modernisation into submission. Whilst the imagery may be vastly different, the flavour is not.
Justin Stall is a man who knows fish better than most. Not because he’s been busy trawling for them amongst waves of the vicious North Atlantic, for when Justin was fishing, the views were more almighty than any storm.
For a decade he organised luxury, bespoke high-end fly fishing trips; a job that took him from the Seychelles to Russia, Alaska and back.
It’s a fantastic bedrock to be hewn from, and I think, his secret weapon. He appreciates the beauty of a fish and its environment, so when they’re smoked, Justin knows the respect that’s due.
“I’m completely self-taught, so I don’t know what happens in any other smokehouse” Justin tells me half laughingly, half mildly pensive. But I think it’s his second secret to success.
A business free from the constraints of times gone by, is a lucky one indeed and it allowed the Staal Smokehouse to develop its own identity.
As we look at a tray smeared with dark molasses-based mixture Justin describes how, “First thing on Monday morning I go to Grimsby and get the salmon. We dry cure it for twelve hours in brown sugar and salt, wash it all down, let it rest and it goes in to the smokehouse on Tuesday”.
Two stainless steel smoking machine chimneys pierce the ceiling as we enter the next room. It’s a room that on a cool autumn afternoon, as it was, offers a feeling of comfort and homeliness.
The orange hue running through the pink sides of salmon laid out on smoking racks, is a splash of colour against the plain dull walls, our blue coats and hairnets the only other visual stimuli.
Hanging in the air is the smell of autumnal woodland walks, the warm embrace of an open fire in the pub, conkers, childhood. A slight haze seeps from the smoking tray as Justin checks its smouldering content.
Oak and applewood chips are the source of the smoky flavour, tree choice historically dictated by nearby abundant forests. Travel further afield to Europe where ash, beech or pine are used. The Icelandic’s, for lack of trees, smoke fish over smouldering sheep dung.
Thankfully Justin has developed a product with a much more subtle flavour, he’s an exponent of complimenting the flavour of the fish, not masking it. A stance developed, I wonder, from his global fly fishing days?
As Justin talks, his face often creased with smiles and laughter, you’re aware he’s a humble man. I had to prompt him into detailing the awards he’s won and since my visit, the accolades have continued.
So what makes Justin’s products so fantastic, so flavoursome, so revered? The surroundings add little, the raw product, is indeed, very well sourced and the process to smoke it is meticulous. However, I don’t think these are the geysers of greatness.
It has to be the man behind the product, ably supported by his family whom he often referred to. Justin has turned a hobby into his work, the salmon are a canvas onto which he practices his art and through which the consumer can experience his passion.
I left with the feeling that every product leaving the Staal Smokehouse begins its journey not in twelve hours of smoke, curing trays, or even the sea. They all begin in one place, the heart.