Comeback kipper

Butterflied smoked herrings were once a tasty, cheap meal but have almost disappeared from our plates. Now the kipper is making a comeback

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On a busy Friday lunchtime in Leeds’s Kirkgate Market the stalls that most customers appear to be clustered round are those selling fish and seafood. One of the biggest retailers is doing a brisk trade in cod, coley, haddock, salmon and tuna but selling less of a fish that’s tucked away at the back of the display.

“People find it’s a different, stronger flavour than they get in other foods.”

Surrounded by a sea of mostly white fish, the kippers – silvery tinged with russet brown – account for just one per cent of all sales according to fishmonger Shane Bennett, whose Ramsdens stall has been trading there for over a century. The six kilos of kippers they sell every week, he says, are a drop in the ocean compared to the quantity that used to be sold on the market.

“It’s mainly the older generation who are buying them. Young people don’t seem to be interested in kippers. It looks as though there is a diminishing demand among them.”

Until recently, that picture was repeated everywhere. Many people born in the last 30 years were unlikely to have eaten one. They are one of the fishiest-tasting fish, with a cooking smell to match, and as far as eating them is concerned they are not exactly fast food, the meat having to be carefully picked off the herring bones. Although filleted kippers are now available, often cooked boil-in-the-bag style, kipper connoisseurs believe the fish must be on the bone to get the full authentic flavour.

For younger people, the word kipper has come to mean different things. It is an acronym for Kids in Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings, applied to those who can’t afford to leave home, while “Kipper” was widely used to describe supporters of the UK Independence Party, UKIP, forerunner of today’s main Europhobic party Reform UK. A survey carried out last year by a fisheries trade organisation found that more than half of people in Britain didn’t know that a kipper was a fish.

Now there are signs that the fish is returning to the plates of both young and old. George Clarke of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which monitors and sets standards for sustainable fish stocks, says that growing volumes of kippers are being sold across the UK.

“We were seeing the figures rise quite a lot up to 2020-21, and although we haven’t yet received all the data for the past year I can already see a big increase,” he says.

The process of kippering herring can be traced back to the 1840s when a fish curer in Northumberland, John Woodger, devised the process of splitting herring down the backbone, cleaning out the innards, soaking them in brine and smoking them over smouldering oak.

In the first half of the 20th century kippers were second only to cod in the list of Britain’s favourite fish. Eaten with bread and butter and a cup of tea, they were a cheap and plentiful source of protein for the working classes as well as a favourite breakfast dish with aristocrats and royalty. The author George Orwell once described kippers as his rod and his staff, adding: “I can’t live without them.” The great actor Laurence Olivier was famously outraged when British Rail took them off the breakfast menu on the train he used for commuting to London from his home in Brighton.

Long after kippers peaked in popularity in the 1950s British fishermen were still catching more than 100,000 tons of herring a year in the North Sea alone. Many thousands of tons were also netted off Scotland’s west coast, home of the once famous Loch Fyne kippers. But over-fishing led to herring stocks being virtually wiped out, and in the 1970s a 10-year fishing ban was enforced in UK waters, followed by catch restrictions that put many trawlers at North Sea ports out of business. Almost overnight eating the humble kipper went out of fashion.

Now herring stocks are recovering, and last year the MSC declared that the North Sea was the only sustainable herring fishery left in the north-east Atlantic. Before then, sales of North Sea-caught herring had been increasing by more than five per cent a year. Last year the total catch was 40,000 tons, much of it landed in the Shetlands and the Scottish port of Fraserburgh.

“The fishermen have to catch fish within scientifically recommended boundaries to make sure the stock is sustainable and capable of supplying a lot of affordable, really healthy fish,” says Clarke. Kippers produced from herring stocks certified by the MSC are marked in shops and supermarkets with a blue label.

Besides the recovery of herring stocks, a major part of the comeback kipper story is put down to the health benefits of eating oily fish like herring. The fish contains high levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and is credited with being the best source of vitamin B12 for regulating mood and vitamin D for bone health and reducing the risk of cancer.

In Whitby, William Fortune started smoking herring in 1872 and the business is now run by his great-great grandson, Harry Brown. The last remaining traditional kipper smokehouse in the Yorkshire town, it is visited regularly by school parties keen to learn about Whitby’s heritage and, says Harry, it has produced a growing demand from young people discovering a taste for kippers.

“They return later with one or both parents and ask to be bought kippers for their dinner. People find it’s a different, stronger flavour than they get in other foods. It’s quite unique, and I think that’s why we are seeing interest in kippers on the increase among the younger generation.”

When the ban on herring fishing in the North Sea came into force in the 1970s Fortunes began to source fish from Norway, and more than 40 years later continues to do so. Although Whitby was once the biggest herring port on England’s east coast the fish is no longer landed there.

On Northern market stalls like Ramsdens in Leeds, the main source is the Isle of Man. Sold under the name of Manx Kippers, they have been smoking herring there since the 1870s. It used to be said that visitors would no sooner leave the Isle of Man without kippers than leave Blackpool without a stick of rock. The fish was once its biggest export, but today just a few traditional smokehouses remain. While there is still a small seasonal herring fishery in the Irish Sea, like Fortunes in Whitby the Manx kipper industry relies on herring from elsewhere for its year-round production.

One of the biggest selling points is that, like Fortunes in Whitby, kippers are smoked in the traditional way. However, some UK fish processors have started producing “fake kippers”, using something known as liquid smoke as a marinade to impart the smoky flavour, and using dyes to create the silver-tawny appearance.

The big supermarket chains report an upturn in authentic kipper sales, but a return to the quantities of yesteryear is thought to be unlikely, not least because of the increased choice of other smoked fish now in chilled foods cabinets.

Photo: Shane Bennett of Leeds fishmongers Ramsdens with kippers (Roger Ratcliffe)

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