For 140 years little has altered at Fortune’s Kippers. Chris Berry goes behind the scenes of a very Yorkshire institution
Henrietta Street in Whitby is a national treasure. This lone cobbled single-track lane that leads to the cliff edge on the south side of town is a period drama producer’s dream. It’s as though little has changed here for centuries and it is still home to one of the town’s longest established and best loved businesses, Fortune’s Kippers. This year the family celebrates 140 years of trade.
Forget Dracula, Goth weeks, folk weeks, Whitby Abbey and Whitby jet. Up here time stands still and the familiar fragrance of oak-smoked herring is a reminder to all of childhood days when families such as mine made their way beyond the 199 steps to the abbey, rounding the corner to take in the aroma from the smoke house.
Change is clearly not a word in the vocabulary of Whitby’s last surviving kipper enterprise. The family has used the same smoke house and shop for more than 90 years and the original smoke house was situated just behind their present premises. They’ve not moved and have no intention of doing so.
“We’re still smoking the kippers the way we have always done since our great great grandfather William started in 1872,” says Barry Brown who manages the smoke house and shop in partnership with his brother Derek. They are the fifth generation of the Fortune dynasty to run the business, sons of Jean Brown and grandsons of William Fortune, who ran it as the third generation.
“The splitting of the herrings is straightforward and repetitious. Everything is done by hand. Once they are split and gutted they are soaked in brine for 40 minutes and then hung on tenterhooks on what we call a balk. The herrings are then taken into the smoke house where they are smoked for 18 hours and over three fires. The length of smoking can vary a little because we won’t put them into the shop until we feel they are golden brown and ready. They go in as herrings. They are still wet fish at that time, but they come out as a kipper.
“We use a mix of beech and oak, with a bed of softwood to start the fire. The oak is too dense to light on its own. It all depends on how long we want the fires to burn and how big we want them. The evening fires burn for the longest but there are also times when we put a fire on at lunchtime for about an hour or so to get a few ready for the afternoon if we need to.”
Inside the smoke house the walls are covered with a tar made from the steam, the fires and the oils that drip from the fish. When I visited Barry counted 16 balks, carrying 20 kippers on each balk in one part of the smoke house; and a similar number to the other side. The balks included kipper fillets. They also produce smoked salmon and smoked haddock. Barry’s wife Liz has come up with a mean Kipper paté.
The shop, which wouldn’t look out of place at Beamish Museum, is open seven days a week with a warning that it will always close early if they sell out of kippers. Their normal working hours are from 9am til 3pm.
“If we have kippers left we stay open longer. We try to get people to come early to get what they want and most do. We’re usually really busy between 11am and 2pm. You can only buy over the shop counter, which suits us. The restaurants, cafes, guest houses and hotels that serve our kippers all come here to buy them.
“Derek and I really enjoy our work and the people we meet every day from all walks of life. We get a lot of school visits. The children often come back with their parents. Kippers are quite popular with youngsters because of their flavour.”
Visitors trek up Henrietta Street at all times of year no matter what the weather. Whilst I was with Barry he served several couples of all ages and they all wanted to know how many kippers Barry and Derek sell a year. Like a true Yorkshire businessman he doesn’t give the game away wholly.
“If you sell enough there’s a decent living. This year hasn’t been bad even though the poor weather will always affect trade in the town. Someone who is coming for kippers will come here regardless of the weather. We get regular customers throughout the year from Leeds, West Riding and Teesside. Kippers freeze well and there are many who like to have kippers at least twice a week. They are especially good for those with heart conditions.”
Neither brother came into the business in their youth. Their Uncle Bill, who passed away earlier this year, ran Fortune’s for 20 years before Derek joined the business in 1991 and four years later went into partnership with Barry.
“Derek worked for British Rail and I was a steel erector. I think it was always in the back of our mind to join the family business. We’d helped our granddad when he was alive and that meant that perhaps unknowingly at the time we were picking up the way things were done. It was probably a good thing for us to have worked elsewhere before coming here. I’m glad I did it the way I did.”
What has changed in Henrietta Street is the community. In the late 19th-century every cottage was home to a local family and the air was full of smoke from a number of other kipper establishments. Barry is able to count quickly the number of local families left in this historic separate land, almost divorced from the rest of the town.
“There are just four cottages occupied as residences now, the rest are all holiday lets. All of the other smoke houses have gone. Noble’s were the last. They were just 20 yards from us at the top of the street. The nearest other kipper business is at Staithes, then the next one is at Craster on the Northumberland coast.”
Back when William Fortune started at No.22 Henrietta Street, author Bram Stoker hadn’t written Dracula and Gladstone was Prime Minister. The family business consisted of a seaside mix of kippers and donkeys, and trading rabbits for fish.
William’s son Martin worked with his father in the smoke house whilst also running the donkey rides on the beach. Martin married Ellen who helped him pack kippers into wooden boxes that were sent by train throughout the UK. Barry tells of a story handed down by his grandfather.
“We sold the donkeys to the Wilsons, one of our competitors, just before the Second World War. It turned out quite a shrewd move because the beaches couldn’t be used at all during wartime.”
In the late 1940s Martin handed the business on to his son William, Barry and Derek’s grandfather. William combined his work at the smoke house with his other role in a building firm. He married Lacy Kelly who became well-known for her rolled herrings, specially baked in a coal fire oven. William and Lacy had three children – Barry and Derek’s Uncle Bill, their mother Jean and another daughter Brenda.
Political legislation and environmental health rulings have had an impact on where Fortune’s herring comes from, how they sell their kippers and distribute the waste.
“We haven’t had a local herring for 35 years. The herring ban in 1977 lasted six years and saw the end of local catches. There was a time when Whitby landed a great deal of herring on the quay and we also used to get supplies from South Shields. They would be transported to us by steam train to West Cliff and Whitby stations and brought in barrows from there.
“All of our herring now comes from the North East Atlantic Quarter, a massive area off the Faroes. It is caught by Norwegian fishermen, the catch is frozen immediately and brought over in freezer containers to our suppliers in Redcar.
“We had to argue hard to keep our method of curing and preparing the kippers in the 1990s. In the end we won but the price we paid was not being able to distribute other than from the shop. In our granddad’s time he had a successful wholesale trade.
“My gran and great aunt, who lived in the house next door to the smoke house, also used to be able to feed all the guts from the herring to the seagulls on the clifftop. Environmental Health put a stop to that too.”
Fortune’s Whitby Cured Kippers have been patronised by leading chefs and food personalities including Rick Stein, Gary Rhodes and the Two Fat Ladies.
“James Martin raves about our kippers and Rosemary Shrager has just put us in her latest book. The Princess Royal has written complimentary words about us too. When the TV show Heartbeat was being filmed the production company came here for a shoot.”
The family connection lives on in Henrietta Street with Derek’s sons Daniel and Matthew and Barry’s daughters all having an involvement. “They’re all learning like we did. Our business is all about using your eyes and experience. You can’t really teach it. You have to be here and do it and you pick it up as you go along.”
HOW TO COOK KIPPERS
You can fry, grill, oven bake in tin foil, microwave or barbecue. The Two Fat Ladies publicised ‘jugging’ whereby the kippers are placed head down in a tall warmed jug. You then pour enough boiling water to cover all but the tails and cover the jug with a cloth. Let them stand for 5-6 minutes, drain the water and serve on warmed plates with butter.