It’s an odd thing, craft. Instagram has it pinned as an activity that takes place in either a tumbledown wooden shack, hidden in the depths of a remote, dense, snow-tickled forest, or in the corner of some decaying factory, slap-bang in the epicentre of an urban district, brimming with dystopian decay. The individuals involved are a stereotype too: those hard-working few, who keep the weak heart of a bygone art beating by only the skin of their bare, weathered hands. Clad – as always – in their uniform of check shirts, blue denim, and stiff boots, all as well-worn as those same weathered hands, they fit neatly into one of two camps: the ancient, died-in-the-wool craftsman, still plying his trade as the sole survivor of his craft; and the younger, hipper, had a job in the City, but cashed his chips early to take up the limp reigns of a forgotten industry sorts. Oh, and they all have beards.
Quite rightly, craft is a stickler for tradition. It remains resolute in its adherence to type. In London, the east is where craft calls home. The wharfs, warehouses, and other dusty brick buildings, provide roofs, warmth, and never-ending edgy promo shots for all manner of small scale industry. Living in the squat, crowded, never-ending homelands of suburbia and working amongst the tall, gleaming shards of glass that line the Thames, we outsiders get a glimpse of the hard graft of the distant east, only through the pages of glossy magazines and the fingerprint smudged screen of an iPhone.
Craft isn’t destined for a life in these parts, so why was I here, in the heartland of it all? Camberwell, a bus ride away from the echoes of the ever-screeching, commuter infested Northern Line. Camberwell, with it’s Scooby Doo conveyor-belt of a high street – house, house, council estate, house, Chicken Cottage, Foxton, Tesco, Sainsbury, house, house, council estate, house, etc, etc. Camberwell, an area far from synonymous with the dying industries, crumbling chimneys, and forgotten skills that comprise craft. There’s simply nothing here to be revived by the bearded folks who’ve grown bored of corporate life; or is there?
Perhaps craft isn’t such a stickler for tradition. Perhaps, by the nature of its small size, craft can exist anywhere that a certain impetuous, a certain ambition, and a certain drive are all present. Perhaps a one-bed flat can be the studio for a jeweller, a guest bedroom the home of a calligrapher, or a suburban garden shed the kitchen for a fish smoker. Besides, who ever said craft had to be about rejuvenation? How about invention? How about taking a skill, a process, a product and making it’s home somewhere that was a never it’s home before? How about thinking of craft as creation, rather than conservation?
And there, on a Camberwellian side street, stood the shed; behind a never-ending row of Georgian terrace, between the creosote slathered fence panels that line the boundaries of each Englishman’s castle, feet from the back door, and miles from the sea. Not just a shed, not just a proper shed, but a proper proper shed. No lean to, this one. No half-sunken refuge of a man cave, with football crackling on the radio, and a half-finished spice rack nailed to the workbench. Not a bit of it. This shed was weather-proof, water-tight, professional, standing tall and standing strong. What the neighbours thought, I asked, but the owner didn’t know. He was James Eagle – founder, owner, and face of The Pished Fish – and, aside from the absence of a check shirt and boots, he sported the denim lower, bearded upper, and weathered hands of a craftsman.
The Pished Fish is craft; true craft. Two people – James and his fiancé – work on the product from the ground up. They create, they market, they sell. Each and every week, James visits Billingsgate, buying some of Scotland’s finest (and therefore most expensive) salmon, before returning home, closing the shed door to gut, clean, trim, and prepare the fish for smoking. Out of the one room it goes – the immaculately clean, stainless steel lined one, adorned with fish related trinkets – and into the other; the almost pitch black, toasty-warm, wood-lined, smoke-filled one. Here is where the magic happens. Inside waist high metal boxes, row upon row of inch-thick, deliciously orange fillets of prime salmon gentle absorb the subtle hints, flavours, scents, and smells of the wafting woodchip smoke. Tainted – in a good way – by both the curing process and the smoke, the fish takes on a new tantalising, mouthwatering colour. It sings from the smoker, from the cellophane wrapped packet, and from the plate. I was offered six pieces and within less than a minute, there was nothing left for the cat.
As with every true craft, what James does is different from the others. Years spent touring Scandinavia as a corporate suit (really, that doesn’t sound much like work) gave James an insight into the world of curing and raised a question in his mind. Why cure, but not smoke? Surely the ever-popular, middle class staple that is smoked salmon could be enhanced and improved by the introduction of a cure? And not just any cure, but an alcohol based cure.
So, The Pished Fish was born. Does it take more explaining than that? Absolutely. As James went to great lengths to demonstrate, while the smoke is the party-piece – the circus act for the cameras – the real hero is the cure, to which smoke plays second fiddle. The cure is what delivers the flavour; in some cases, the significant flavour. While we started with a light, whisky cured salmon, that would tick the box of anyone seeking the ‘traditional’ taste of shop-bought smoked salmon, the final tasting of an aquavit salmon delivered an extremely healthy punch of the deep, sharp, and warming flavours that can be found in a spirit. Of course, it isn’t just the alcohol that dictates the profile of the cure. James has matched spirits with a range of herbs and spices to compliment the drinks: punching when they need to and mellowing when required. The aquavit joined such bold ingredients as star anise and juniper, to be finished off with chopped beetroot after smoking; while the whisky sat happily with maple syrup and orange zest, delivering the exacting hint of ‘old fashioned’ that James was looking for.
With a near infinite array of flavour combinations to play with, The Pished Fish has served up all manner of cures – Guinness and tarragon, Jack Daniels, paprika, and Tabasco; the sort of interesting combinations that leap off a label, sparkle on the tongue, and make customers come back for more. There’s a real skill in the picking the right flavours for the fish, of course, and likely an equal skill in choosing the right flavour for a customer. Those cautious, conservative types, looking to stick with the store-bought taste of smoked salmon would be best starting with the lightly flavoured offerings. Those with a more adventurous palettes should go for the bold combinations, like the aquavit and beetroot; a particular favourite of mine, that combined the strong tang of the spirit, with the equally punchy herbaceous tones of the juniper and a deep earthy twang from the beetroot. Delicious, absolutely; but, definitely not a taste many would expect from smoked salmon.
There’s further skill in picking the smoke too. Smoke has flavour, pulled from the wood as it burns, and every wood is different, often significantly so. Just as whisky uses different oaks to achieve radically different profiles, so James uses wood to match and enhance the flavour of the cure. His whisky cured fish was smoked with – well, what else? – wood chip from whisky barrels, delivering a compliment to a compliment to a compliment. Each of the other fish with smoked with something equally complimentary; come on, you get the theme here? Just as cooking oil, isn’t just cooking oil, salt isn’t just salt, spices aren’t just spices, so smoke isn’t just smoke – each needs careful consideration and careful selection before being introduced to the food.
There’s an entire article just waiting to be written on wood smoke and the industry that’s growing up around it. There’s also another article to be written on the trials and tribulations of a startup in London: an insight into the world of a small business, the angle, direction, and strategy a business points itself in, and the wafer thin line that exists between success and failure. For now, it’s enough to sit back, taste, and admire the product of The Pished Fish. They demonstrate, quite perfectly, the achievements of a craft and reaffirm the belief that craft can exist, thrive, and succeed anywhere that hard work and dedication exist. The classic Instagram shots might look pretty, but they’re wrong; craft isn’t a stickler for tradition, nor does it conform to simple stereotypes, it can be found in each and every corner of a city and far beyond too.
By Nik Speller | Photography by Anaick Crozon
Info: You can find The Pished Fish on sale at Oval Market, Partridges Food Market, Herne Hill Market, and The Food Market Chiswick.