Chesil Smokery in Bridport
PUBLISHED: 10:25 18 December 2013 | UPDATED: 14:10 25 March 2015
Fish fanatic Mark Firth started Chesil Smokery two years ago and has already gathered a clutch of awards. Never one to rest on his laurels, Mark likes to experiment and push boundaries, as Helen Stiles discovered on a visit to his smoking inner sanctum
“Never trust a thin smoker!” says Mark Firth with a chuckle as he slaps his stomach. Sitting in his office in the somwhat unsalubrious surroundings of a Bridport industrial estate, where Mark set up the Chesil Smokery just over two years ago, there hangs the subtle tang of wood smoke and peat in the air. On the walls of what was - rather ironically - a former laundry are mouth-watering pictures of some of the smoked fish and meats Mark and his team produce.
Mark needs little persuading to take me on a tour of his smokery. Firstly he shows me the business end of the smoker. I peer inside a hopper where a paddle slowly turns over a mix of oak chippings with a little bit of apple wood and a dash of peat. It looks like dark wet sand. “We’re after a light smoke,” Mark confides, “but getting the cure right prior to smoking is as important as the smoke. It’s not about using some exotic rare wood.”
The paddle spreads the sawdust mix on the floor of the smoker to ensure the smoke is even and consistent. We then go around the front and Mark briefly opens the door to the smoker. I peer inside at the racks. “She’s doing a hot smoke on some duck at the moment.” Fingers of fragrant smoke curl into the air, before the heavy steel door with its tiny porthole is shut.
Chesil Smokery launched their range to great acclaim at the Eat Dorset Food Fair in October 2011. “By the summer of 2012 we had won five Great Taste Awards, and we gained two more this year, which means seven of our ten main lines are award-winning,” says Mark proudly. Success followed success and by their first Christmas they had landed an account supplying smoked salmon, first to the prestigious Caviar House and later to British Airways’ First Class Cabins.
“We were lucky that when we started the business there was a great upsurge in people tracking down artisan-style producers who are passionate about sourcing the best ingredients and people trusting suppliers online. We couldn’t survive without our online business.”
The booming online side of the business features the ‘Smoking Club’. Choose a monthly box of goodies, either individually tailored or one of their selection boxes, such as the Old English – consisting of smoked haddock, kippers, cod’s roe and smoked mackerel. Mark affectionately refers to this classic collection as the ‘Old Farts’ box. “We offer ‘Thank You’ presents, ‘Sorry’ presents; these are not gifts you stick in a drawer and forget about, these are gifts that will be relished and enjoyed.”
Mark has a passion for fish and a passion for food. After leaving school he spent several idyllic years in waders in the wilds of Scotland as a ghillie. “The locals knocked a few corners off me, but it made me a better person,” he smiles. Having met his wife, Fiona, he returned to Wiltshire in 1983 to set up the tailor-made sporting travel company Roxtons with a group of like-minded adventurers, keen to pursue fish and game in more remote areas of the globe from Russia to Cuba. “We were pretty much the first boys in the game,” he smiles showing me some breathtaking images of a fishing trip in Cuba on his laptop. “Our first corporate clients were JP Morgan and Salomon Brothers, we were incredibly lucky.”
In 2005 Mark sold up the business and returned to Fiona’s native Dorset with their three boys, taking over her family’s trout farm in Hooke. You might think that raising a family, looking after a busy trout farm and leading the odd fishing expedition to some exotic location would be enough, but not for Mark. He had a hankering. “I always wanted to get involved in the food business. I love cooking and I love food.”
By chance Mark got a call from someone asking if he knew anywhere locally where they could get their fish smoked, as Bridfish in Bridport had ceased trading. Mark didn’t need to be asked twice; he took over the Bridfish premises and equipment in late July 2011. “It was a very spontaneous thing but there has been a smokery here for over 30 years, so I naïvely thought it must be possible to do this.”
Mark got support from two Dorset-based investors: Johnny Boden from Boden Clothing and Perry Haydn Taylor, founder and creative director of Big Fish which helps entrepreneurs develop new brands. “Perry was the marketing genius behind Gü Puddings, Yeo Valley and Dorset Cereals, and was involved from the start. He did all the branding.”
Being a newbie at the smoking business Mark brought in two experts to work alongside him - local smoker David Mitchell, known as Mitch, and Martin Greenman, who had worked at Bridfish for many years. “Martin knew about this particular smoker, this one is 30 or so years old so she has her quirks. He will talk very sternly to her at times,” he chuckles. Whether it’s duck, venison, haddock or salmon, smoking starts with the right cure – which can be wet (brine) or dry depending on the product. Some fish, such as salmon and trout always have a dry cure, as Mark explains: “We use a mixture of salt and sugar. The salmon will spend 24 hours in that, and then you wash that off and put it in to be cold smoked, which means a temperature no higher than 25 degrees. Wet or brine cures tend to be for venison, duck, chicken, grouse, haddock, mackerel, kippers.”
Mark’s experience of shooting and eating game and his passion to promote it as a great British food led him to explore smoking some more unusual meats. “We already smoked duck and venison but last year we offered partridge, which went down a storm. This year’s hit is smoked grouse. We source the birds from the Pennine Moors and smoke them here in Dorset.” Mark believes Chesil is the only smokery in the country doing smoked grouse. “Cold smoked grouse is sensational. It’s a marriage made in heaven. The richness of game works really well with the smokiness. We smoke the whole bird so you can use the carcass at the end to create a fantastic stock.”
More unusual smoked products on Mark’s menu include smoked scallop corals, a by-product of the fishing industry which are often thrown away, and seasonal, limited editions such as local smoked prawns. However when it comes to exploring new avenues he has his feet firmly on terra firma. “I know that ‘smoked’ is a big buzz word in the food industry at the moment. There’s smoked water, smoked crisps, smoked salt but I have a strict rule - don’t start doing things unless there is a sensible market. Will I be smoking humming bird tongues in the near future? No! But we are playing with vegetables with a view to launching a smoked vegetable range in the spring.”
Mark leads me into the processing and packing area where Rory and Martin are expertly hand carving glistening sides of cold smoked salmon. For BA, each slice had to be hand carved to be between 18 and 22 grams.
Christmas is Mark’s busiest time. Orders start coming in from late October and by late November it’s all hands on deck. Last year Chesil Smokery sent out 1,000 boxes in the week before Christmas; Mark expects it to be double that this year.
Sides of smoked salmon are the big seller, while kippers are best described as a guilty pleasure for men, encouraged by women. Sales are rising fast. “Kippers are quite a male thing,” says Mark. “We sell a lot at shows where girls are there on their own. They buy a pair of kippers to distract the husband from what else they have bought. We always have a giggle with them about that.”
Having done the tour it is time to taste some of the products. The raw ingredients are very important for Mark. He sources most of his sea fish locally, from Bridport-based fish merchants Samways, the free range duck from Creedy Carver in Devon, and the salmon from a Scottish farm where the fish cages are off shore in the tidal flow, preventing the fish from getting fatty and flabby. “You have to start with the very best ingredients you can,” says Mark. “We use a relatively light smoke. I want our smoke to produce a wonderful backdrop to what you’re eating - not be in your face.”
I try some of the smoked trout, sourced from the family’s trout farm. The subtle signature earthiness of the trout can still be tasted through the soft smokiness – a delicate balance, artfully captured. The hot smoked salmon with its unctuous coral coloured flakes is especially moist due to being smoked twice. “We give it a cold smoke followed by a hot smoke – which is unusual,” says Mark, before cutting me a slice of smoked grouse. Gamey yet smoky – I can see why this is a big hit with customers, perfect for a gutsy winter salad.
“We are very fortunate being based in Dorset,” says Mark. “There are some wonderful chefs here who use our products and also a very discerning clientele who enjoy a product that has been produced with passion from start to finish.”
With a fervent foodie like Mark at the helm of this burgeoning Bridport business, it’s easy to see why Chesil Smokery calls itself the Hottest Little Smokery in the West.
Join the Smoking Club
Why not sign up to the monthly box scheme run by Chesil Smokery? Your first box costs just £10, including delivery. Make your own selection for the first month, either online or over the phone. You then undertake two further months at the level you have chosen – usually between £30 and £40 - with free delivery. After that it’s up to you if you wish to cancel. You can manage your own account online, so you can change the contents each month, change the delivery date or address
For more details go to chesilsmokery.com.
Dorset Magazine Reader Offer
Place your Christmas order with Chesil Smokery and receive your own Christmas gift. Spend £25 or more and receive 100g smoked salmon free. Spend £50 or more and you’ll get 200g smoked salmon free. Spend £100 or more and receive a whole side of smoked salmon free.
Simply enter the code DORSET online at the Chesil checkout between
20 November and 10 December 2013.
Chesil Smokery Shop
The shop at Chesil Smokery HQ is open weekdays, from 9am-5pm.
Chesil Smokery, The Old Laundry, Sea Road North, Bridport, DT6 3BD
Tel: 01308 456306