It is a bright, crisp morning in the Yorkshire Dales. In the distance, a towering, overhanging limestone cliff, known as Kilnsey Crag, looms above the road and towards the River Wharfe. As white clouds scud across this ancient landscape sculpted from craggy, heather-coated hills and rich, grass-covered dales, just visible is Mastiles Lane, the Roman road that would have formed part of the historic connection between Fountains Abbey and its lands in the Dales.
Part of that history is the Kilnsey Park Estate, which has been raising trout for many years. It boasts two large freshwater, spring-fed trout ponds which are popular for fly fishing. A less well-known gem in the crown is a small smokery situated by the trout raceways where fingerlings are raised to maturity in crystal clear, limestone-filtered water that races down from the surrounding hills.
The smokery began in the 1980s and has gained a reputation among local food lovers for its small range of exquisite, traditionally smoked food. Earlier this year its reputation grew nationally when its smoked duck achieved three gold stars in the prestigious Guild of Fine Foods’ Great Taste Awards, with its cold smoked trout receiving a gold star.
Like its Michelin counterpart, the Guild of Fine Foods, does not give its stars away easily. Of 10,000 products entered for the awards only 130 foods achieved the most coveted three-star rating.
“The inspiration behind the success of the Kilnsey smokery is my mother, Vanessa,” says Jamie Roberts, the managing partner of the estate. “She learned how to smoke food from Jurg Bleiker, the founder of Bleiker’s smokehouse in North Yorkshire. We use fine quality, local ingredients raised here on the estate or sourced locally. The recipes used in preparing meat and fish for smoking are rooted in the history of the Kilnsey Estate.”
Jamie, who takes an active interest in local history, adds: “Cistercian monks arrived on the estate gifted to them in 1155. For almost 400 years the Craven area supported vast flocks of sheep and generated huge wealth for Fountains Abbey – until Henry VIII seized their lands at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monks were astute businessmen and Kilnsey hosted annual sheep gatherings where thousands of sheep were washed, sheared and traded – a tradition that continues at the Kilnsey Show today.
Merchants from across Europe came to Kilnsey to buy the high-quality wool and, in return, the monks were able to purchase luxuries such as salt (which was vital for preserving food for the winter months) and spices which they used in elaborate dishes to impress their guests. “It is hard to envisage colourful Venetian traders visiting the Yorkshire Dales but they would have been a familiar sight here in the 16th century,” says Jamie. “The salt and spices they brought with them were highly prized – in fact, salt was so valued by the monks it was more expensive than gold.
“Salt was served in elaborate silver or pewter salt cellars, strategically positioned on the table to indicate the status of the visitor. Spices such as mace, cinnamon and nutmeg from Indonesia were also used to flavour food for elaborate feasts which the monks used to host here.”
Drawing on Kilnsey’s long history, Jamie is working on plans to expand the range of food that the smokery produces. A new premium line of free range sausages, chicken and Yorkshire cheese will join the existing award-winning smoked duck and trout.
Like the monks, the Yorkshire Holy Smokery is sourcing its produce from the surrounding green valleys. The recipes used to prepare the smoked ingredients are being carefully researched with the help of a local food historian to reflect the use of some of the ingredients and methods the monks would have employed during the Middle Ages. These include fresh herbs such as tarragon, spices including mace and cardamom and wild native fruits such as sloes and juniper. Today the estate keeps its own bees, which feed on the blooming heather that covers the expansive Wharfedale moorland in late summer – just as they did in monastic times. The smokehouse has been experimenting with using mead (an ancient liqueur brewed from honey) as a flavouring.
“Smoking food is about much more than lighting a fire and sitting back for the smoke to work its magic on the food – for instance, the type of wood used to smoke the food creates subtly different flavours,” says Jamie. Whereas most commercial smokehouses use oak or beech he is looking at other local woods to see if they work. “We are exploring the use of rowan trees which were considered holy and could only be used for religious purposes. They were also associated with Saint Brigid, the patron saint of spinning and weaving, and used to make spinning wheels.”
Using smoke to preserve meat and fish is an ancient craft and, in the days before fridges, it was a principal method of food preservation. The time- honoured smoking process begins now as it always has with salting fish and meat in a solution of brine infused with combinations of natural aromatics to suit the inherent flavour of the food.
After salting, the food to be smoked is placed on racks in the smokery where wood shavings are set alight. The smokehouse at Kilnsey is a smallish, dark room lit from a picture window to one side. Through it there is a beautiful view of the surrounding estate. The smoking kiln stretches along the back wall of the room. Wood smoke billows through the oven, gently infusing the food.
Today smoking food is as much about developing different flavours and textures as preserving the food. Jamie’s plan to expand the range of smoked food on sale from the estate is timely. Smoking food is undergoing something of a renaissance, as talented chefs and specialist restaurants realise its almost limitless potential.
Paul Rawlinson, owner of the acclaimed Harrogate-based Nordic restaurant Norse, says: “Yorkshire and Nordic countries have a lot in common in terms of how food was smoked and preserved in the past. Smoking food gives chefs the opportunity to be inventive with flavours. Two of our most popular dishes are smoked Jerusalem artichoke puree spread on bread and scattered with puffed buckwheat and a pudding of smoked fudge sauce with coffee cake.
“People are interested in the revival of traditional techniques, connecting with nature and eating local food. Smoking food is also relatively simple to do at home.”
The link with the Cistercian monks inspired Jamie to come up with a new name – the Yorkshire Holy Smokery – and the latest range of products will be launched early in 2016.
Many well-known smokehouses are located on industrial estates – very different from the beautiful environment at Kilnsey. “We pride ourselves on being a small-scale, family-run smokehouse which will produce excellent quality smoked food,” adds Jamie. “Ever since my family came to live here we have had a strong commitment to looking after the Dales which includes taking care of a wildflower nature reserve, breeding red squirrels and generating green energy from water and the sun. And we welcome visitors who can see for themselves the environment in which our food is produced.”
This is just the place to rear and process food I thought as I took a final glance up at the magnificent Kilnsey Crag and the limestone landscape before leaving for home.
For an update on the plans for the Yorkshire Holy Smokery and visitor details go to kilnseypark.co.uk