Tonight’s the night. It’s kippers for tea. I eat them about once a year, usually in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness when I am consumed by a deep craving for the gently smoked herrings that were one of the mainstays of the British Empire. I thoroughly enjoy their succulent, salty sweetness, but I usually have to lie down afterward, while the kitchen is impregnated with their particularly pungent, unmistakable aroma.
Kippers demand to be eaten with mountains of toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea — never coffee, which fails to provide the right touch of astringency to offset the oily richness. They also need silent concentration to avoid stuck bones; indeed, your only companion should be a copy of “The Times” (as long as you don’t choke over the letters page).
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With its mineral flashes of pewter, gold and amber, and bronzed flesh, the kipper is a magnificent beast but not for those who faint at the sight of a fish bone. Yes, you can buy fillets but that is like listening to a Spotify compilation of Mozart “hits” instead of watching “Figaro” at the Met.
Kipper dyes were introduced during World War I to compensate for reduced smoking times brought about by cost-cutting measures. Scottish smokehouses invented the commercial coal tar dye Brown FK (for kippers). The habit stuck and many kippers are still treated with colorants, which give them a brassy Hawaiian tan or radioactive glow.
Where the best kippers are produced
The best undyed artisanal kippers, glossy and plump, are produced in Scotland (Loch Fyne, Mallaig or Stornoway, in particular); the Isle of Man (their famous Manx kippers are small and delicate); Craster in Northumberland; and Whitby in Yorkshire (split through the back rather than the belly).
Alas, in Britain, the humble herring no longer commands the everyday popularity it once had, as captured in the words of an old Scottish folk song, “Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring is the fish for me.” Pardon the pun, but the tide is starting to turn and they are expecting large numbers for the annual Herring Festival that takes place in Clovelly, Devon, in mid-November.
Once, herring, or “silver darlings” as they are also known, swam in shoals as large as armies. By 1913, more than 6,000 Scottish girls migrated south to England’s east coast each season, following the catch in a kind of fishy transhumance. The fishwives slept in tumbledown shacks known as kip houses — from which the British slang term, “having a kip” derives.
As the century progressed, a price was paid for overfishing. Changing tastes also caused a decline, perhaps because of the herring’s association with poverty. Good management has since increased stocks, and herring is back on bistro tables, especially now that the health benefits of oily fish are widely recognized.
How a herring becomes a kipper
To turn the herring into a kipper, it is gutted, split along the backbone, opened out and lightly salted, and hung on wooden pegs or “tenterhooks” while it is cold-smoked over oak or beech wood. Surprisingly, the kipper in its present form dates back only to the early 19th century, when a Northumbrian curer launched his “kippered” herring on the London market, borrowing the term from a technique used with salmon. The best kippers are a skillful blend of smoke and salt, with gentle but lingering flavors and buttery moist textures.
In its state-owned heyday, first-class travelers on British Rail used to be able to enjoy their legendary breakfast kipper, served on starched tablecloths by smartly uniformed stewards as the train chugged through a green and pleasant land. The Brighton Belle rail line was particularly renowned for its grilled kippers, which were much loved by the actor Lord Laurence Olivier who campaigned in 1972 to save them when British Rail tried to drop them from the menu. Olivier would have them for high tea when rehearsing in London and traveling home to Brighton — accompanied by a bottle of Champagne.
Oh, you long-lost railway kipper, resplendent amidst the rattling china and silverware … I must stop before I come over all poetical … but somehow I fear no verse will ever be written about the vegetarian sausage or bacon baguette.
Cooking your kipper
Broil: Dot with butter, place in a foil-lined pan under a medium-high broiler and cook for a few minutes, flesh side up (you are really just re-heating the kippers rather than “cooking”). Serve with freshly ground black pepper and lemon wedges.
Jugging: Remove the heads (if you prefer), fold the fish sides together. Place into a large jug. Fill with boiling water and cover so the kippers are immersed except for the tails. Leave for five minutes then pull out by the tails. Serve with a lump of butter on each. Perhaps the least odiferous of the techniques.
Steaming: This variation originated at a Blackpool seaside boarding house landlady, quoted by Sheila Hutchins in “Grannie’s Kitchen” (1979). Stand a colander over a pan of boiling water and spread a piece of foil in it. Place the kippers onto the foil and cover with the pan lid. Steam for 5 minutes.
Baking: Wrap the whole fish in a foil parcel, and bake in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes. Serve in the parcel.
Uncooked: There was a fashion in the 1960s and ’70s for uncooked kippers. They were boned, sliced thinly and marinaded in oil and lemon juice. Jane Grigson, in “Good Things” (1971), suggested thinly sliced raw fillets should be “arranged in strips around the edge of some well-buttered rye bread with an egg yolk in the middle as sauce” and served with vodka or schnapps.
Kippers on the bone are usually sold in pairs (for example, two herrings each split and “butterflied” flat, the flesh side of one placed on top of the other).
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer
Ingredients, per person:
1½ cups cooked kipper flesh (This recipe also works well with other smoked fish.)
¼ stick of unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese
juice of 1 lemon
Cayenne pepper or paprika (to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh-chopped parsley
1. Blend or mash the kipper with the butter, cream cheese, lemon juice, cayenne and parsley.
2. Press into a ramekin or one larger pot, cover with plastic wrap and chill for a few hours.
3. Serve with crackers or buttered toast and a lemon wedge.
Main photo: Kippers demand to be eaten with hot toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea. Credit: Clarissa Hyman