BERNARD Lynch’s business card carries an unusual job description – ‘Smoker to the Stars’. There’s nothing fishy about that – apart from the fact that the mainstay of his work is smoking salmon, trout, cod, herring, and other catches.
His customers range from members of Tynedale’s angling fraternity to celebrities like ex-England footballers, Michael Owen and Sol Campbell, and the late discerning art critic, Brian Sewell.
Visitors to Hexham Farmers’ Market may well have sampled his wild venison burgers and smoked bacon in a bun.
His business, Bywell Smokery, so-called because it began life at South Acomb Farm in Bywell, moved late last year from food hub, Vallum, to old farm premises at Wark.
And this spring, Bernard is teaming up with the North Tyne village’s Battlesteads Hotel to offer courses in curing and smoking to visitors for the first time.
He has been the Battlesteads’ go-to guy for smoked fish and meats for many years now, so publican Richard Slade was delighted when Bernard, who lives in nearby Stagshaw, decided to move his smokery just around the corner.
Richard says: “When we first came to Battlesteads we wanted to source as much as we could from local producers, but we found that unlike Cumbria and Yorkshire, this part of Northumberland didn’t have a lot of artisan food producers. I think everyone accepts that was the case but it’s changing rapidly now.”
It was Bernard’s kippers, found on his Hexham market stall, that first got Richard hooked like a herring.
“I love kippers, but a lot of the kippers I’ve had in the past have been dehydrated. But Bernard’s are so soft and the flavour is absolutely incredible. I think they’re the best kippers I’ve ever tasted. We put them on the menu here and they were incredibly popular. He even agreed to do a low salt cure because of my high blood pressure!”
Kippers play just a small part in Bernard’s repertoire however. On a blackboard in the entrance to his kitchen is chalked a list of the other products he offers including cold smoked sliced salmon; pancetta, cod and haddock and hot smoked trout, chicken and pheasant.
When we visit, he is busy bathing duck breasts, sourced locally from Thistleyhaugh Farm, Longhorsley, in an aromatic pastrami-style cure. Pastrami is a particular favourite of Bernard’s at the moment. Usually used to tenderise and flavour cheap cuts of beef like brisket, it can also be used on pork, mutton and poultry.
Bernard says: “The New York delis use it. It’s a charcuterie really to utilise the cheaper commodities like brisket. You are talking about curing it for three days prior to smoking it.”
Meanwhile in one of two large industrial kilns, several racks of whole sides of salmon are being hot smoked. Bernard uses a combination of pure oak shavings and sawdust, which, together with his ‘secret’ combination of herbs and spices, imparts a unique flavour and colour without the use of dyes, artificial preservatives or additives.
Smoking food must have been going on since not long after humankind first discovered fire and realised that smoke had a particularly transformative effect on their mammoth, bison or fish.
Historically, its most important role has been in the preservation of food, but with the arrival of sophisticated refrigeration methods, smoking is now more about tenderising and flavouring.
Smoking is a complicated chemical business as Bernard will tell you – and unless you have a chemistry qualification, don’t get him started on volatiles and nitrogens. But suffice to say that Bernard understands the chemical process well enough not to poison anyone!
“Prior to smoking you can immerse a big fish or meat in a wet cure – a solution of pure salt and water or you can also use dry curing which is a combination of salt and other things like sugar and nitrates,” Bernard says.
He devotes one kiln to hot smoking and the other to cold smoking. The process of hot smoking uses the combination of heat and smoke. That is to say, both roasting and smoking in tandem. The roasting temperature in the kiln does not exceed 100 degrees C.
Cold smoking does not require cooking as the internal temperature within the kiln does not exceed 24 degrees C and is slightly above ambient room temperature.
Bernard pulls out the hopper from the hot smoking kiln, a tray filled with burning oak. “You want to keep it slightly remote from the things you smoke so it doesn’t affect the flavour,” he explains.
“A diffuser, like a funnel, then takes the smoke through the baffles, giving you a uniform, horizontal flow of smoke.”
He derides non-traditional methods like the increasing use of ‘liquid smoke’ where flavourings are applied to the produce like a wash. “I prefer the more nuanced flavours you get with traditional smoking,” Bernard says.” I like the idea of an after taste rather than being hit between the eyes.”
“I got some Vietnamese eel that I bought from an importer who brings in exotic fish. It had a very intense fish flavour. I’ve smoked conger eel as well.”
The five sides of salmon on the top tray of his kiln have all been brought in by Tynedale anglers for hot smoking. And, being a keen fisherman himself when he gets the chance, Bernard is always at pains to make a good job of them.
“Anglers bring fish in from all over the county. They get the fish and the wives tell them to bring it to me then I transform it into hot or cold smoked salmon.”
On the top tray he points to a side of wild salmon caught near Hexham Bridge and another from Chollerton. “These are bonny fish,” he says, appreciatively.
Bernard fishes for salmon at Eltringham and Waters Meet and sometimes at Barrasford. “But generally if people are catching salmon, then that means I am working so I don’t have a lot of time myself to do it.”
He has smoked some unusual species too. “I got some Vietnamese eel that I bought from an importer who brings in exotic fish. It had a very intense fish flavour. I’ve smoked conger eel as well.”
Bernard, who hails from Jesmond in Newcastle, originally trained in catering management and worked in restaurants before joining Aidan Pollard at Bywell Smokery. Bernard bought the business in 2004.
He is looking forward to sharing his smoking expertise with visitors on Battlesteads’ experience breaks. “I’ve doled out lots of advice in the past and people are always asking me for tips so it’s a natural progression. We’ll start with basic safety and then people can learn how to cure and smoke. They might even want to come back and do an advanced course.” There are plans to create a patio out of the back of Wark Farm where the smokehouse is, which will directly overlook a picturesque part of the North Tyne.
Richard from the Battlesteads is excited at the prospect. “We’re trying to develop our out of season tourism,” says the man who has recently unveiled his hotel’s own observatory to capitalise on Northumberland’s dark skies.
“As far as internal tourism is concerned, we haven’t got the sunshine and beaches here so we have to have other things people want to come and do.
“And across all the age ranges, we have people who want to experience things – something that reflects the culture and the history of the locality, the food and the people and that’s what we are trying to promote and develop.”