All the supermarkets and even our convenience shops have stocks of smoked salmon, many of which are labeled in such a way to make it difficult to separate the good from the great and the good from the not so good.
Some of the wording is difficult to understand at first glance; ‘Irish Smoked Salmon’, may in fact mean that the salmon came from God knows where, but was “smoked in Ireland”. ‘Smoked Irish Salmon’ may mean that the salmon is Irish but was smoked in God knows where.
I have been sampling lots of different smoked salmon over the past few months and have to say that most have been disappointing. Needless to say there are exceptions and during a visit to Ashford Castle I asked where it sourced its smoked salmon and the answer from a very enthuastic Stefan Matz, the executive head chef was the Connemara Smokehouse in Ballyconneely. I have always been impressed with the smoked salmon in Ashford as it is consistently excellent.
I had met Graham Roberts, the owner of Connemara Smokehouse, at food demonstrations and knew he was a serious and very energetic producer. I had also seen that he was an official ‘food hero’ as appointed by Rick Stein and has now been bestowed with the title of ‘super hero’, The title of super hero is for those whom Rick deems to be the best of the best.
To get to the Connemara Smokehouse is quite a trip but is worth it, if only to experience the unbridled enthusiasm of Roberts. Drive out to Ballyconneely, (you should allow one hour 30 minutes ) then a little further out to the most beautiful place one could possibly work and live – Aillebrack, next stop is Boston. I would recommend it as a trip for any food lover and even better if you have visitors staying with you and are wondering where to take them in Connemara to make it interesting. If it is a fine day be sure and bring some brown bread so that you can make a picnic with whatever you buy in the smokehouse as the sandy beach next door is simply to die for. On your way home call into James McGeogh the famous artisan butcher in Oughterard for another dose of passion and try some of his fantastic products.
The Connemara Smokehouse always welcomes any visitor and you can see what is happening on the day. However during June, July, and August there is a proper full demo of the process every Wednesday from 3pm to 5pm and of course it is free.
One of the reasons I like visiting a place like this is that you can buy the freshest of the fresh produce there and then, plus there is usually a sample to be tasted. So why is it so good? First, of all it is the raw material; wild salmon, organic salmon, and farmed salmon (five per cent of production ). The wild salmon speaks for itself but because of its scarcity is becoming very expensive and hard to get although they always have some in stock. The organic salmon is what Graham Roberts focuses on. It all comes from a place off Clare Island where the fish are farmed in the open sea with a stocking density of two fish per ton of water. The fish are fed a natural diet of herring, mackerel and plankton. The waters they live in are classed by the E.U. as A1 i.e. the best that there is. There is a constant flow of water through the pens at a rate of two knots with lots of tidal water exchanges. This means that the need for dousing the fish pens with chemicals is kept to a minimum. The Clare Island salmon are certified as organic in Germany, France, Switzerland and Ireland and audited annually by officials from these countries. The fish are all hand filleted and the fatty bits are cut away. This is a particular bug bearer of mine; it is very annoying that one has to cut away up to 20 per cent of smoked salmon to get rid of those brown inedible edges. The Connemara Smokehouse salmon that you buy is all edible. The raw fish fillets are then salted for eight to 10 hours. The salmon is washed and put into the cold room for the night to draw the water off. Some salmon producers use liquid brine that is injected into the fish, sometimes with the addition of weight enhancers, thus adding to the weight we are paying for.
The fish is smoked with beech wood for eight to 10 hours. There is no timer on the smoking ovens as Roberts makes a point of judging when everything is ready by look and feel. If this has to be emptied at 3am then Graham and his family do it. He has a slicing machine but as it takes three hours to clean down he prefers hand slicing. The picture shows the salmon that Roberts sliced with each piece still attached to the skin, the next step is to run the knife under these slices and hey presto a salmon ready for vacuum packing.
There are several products available including line caught tuna and this is one of my favorites, it is sweet and filing and it is fabulous. The gravadlax comes with a sachet of dill sauce and would be my preference over smoked salmon. He also smokes haddock, kippers and mackerel. What I really like is the care and attention to every little detail. The whole place is a clean as physically possible. Robert’s products are certainly more expensive than some on the supermarket shelves, but hey what price a super hero? Everything can be ordered on line at www.smokehouse.ie The Connemara Smokehouse is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, it closes for lunch between 1pm and 2pm, and is open all year around apart from bank holidays. Telephone: 095 23739 / email [email protected]