This must be a pretty easy life, I said to myself. Although it's his day off, James Robb has served me a bite of lunch in the East Pier Smokehouse, hard on the water's edge at St Monans, in the part of Fife known as the East Neuk. Not a cloud in the sky; the Forth is gleaming blue as opposed to its customary grey; and the Bass Rock seems so close I reckon that a couple of skims of a good flat stone would get there.
James bought a ramshackle fish processing shed at auction in 2002. He had a vague notion about learning to smoke fish, as you do. A little while later, the next door brick structure became available. Both belonged to Fife Council, the latter only on a precarious annual lease. Still, it was only going to be a hobby.
Gaze now at the elegant structure with its clean lines, at the dining space featuring photographs of the weathered, rugged men who land the fish which we take for granted. In my review from six or seven years ago (lost in the old website, alas), I described it as the sort of seaside location you feel must have been dreamt up by a film set designer. While I virtually never return to places I've reviewed, I'll happily come back here time and again. But the restaurant reviewer hat must be firmly discarded, as I'm here to learn about the production.
While originally from Northumberland, James retains the urbane charm of a man who was front of house for many of Prue Leith's outlets in London. He moved to Edinburgh in the 1990s (I never did discover why) and started an outside catering business. Well, OK, he'd have learned a bit about it from our Prue, but he was doing a ton of cooking as well. Where did you train? Oh, self taught is the reply. Pretty soon his company is rivalling the big boys, catering at prestigious events, at the National Gallery of Scotland for example.
After a while that got a bit too much, so time to turn to the hobby, Again, largely self taught with a bit of help from locals. At the outset, produce was smoked for sale at farmers' markets; however, people got wind of what was happening on their doorstep and started knocking on the door. James still had the coffee machine from his catering days. Demolition of an old ship building shed made his enterprise much more visible, which is when the problems started. You need a change of use, he was told. While the local fishing community had been positive, many local businesses and residents were less so. Having made the decision to create the restaurant, James had a long struggle. The council, however, were supportive in his quest for a long lease, and Fife Licensing Board granted him a liquor licence, again despite fierce objection. (He had the services of an immensely talented and astonishingly handsome licensing lawyer. I forget the name.)
Think smoking and you probably think of salmon, mackerel, prawns and the like. Yes to all of these, but in his time James has smoked cheese, garlic, chocolate, nuts, sugar, salt and even pate. In my review I noted a smoked gin on the drinks menu. All the smoking done here is cold smoking, where the temperature doesn't go above 25˚C. I'm keen to see where the magic happens, expecting thermostatic controls and modern technology. Wrong. At the end of the building is a pitch black room, no bigger than a coal cellar which I once owned. There are some shelves. A screen to mask the food is the only form of temperature control, and the smoke comes from sawdust lit on a couple of ramps. Different types of wood are used. Oak and beech for salmon; applewood for duck and chicken; alder for scallops and other fish. It all has to be made specially for food use, and is imported from Germany.
So how long does it all take? I ask. It varies, is the answer. External temperature is a factor, and the East Neuk of Fife weather can be dreich*, as we would say here. Salmon can take 36 hours, which involves a lot of forays into a smoke filled closet to replenish the sawdust. In the end of the day it is down to touch and experience to know when things are done. These days, of course, all the salmon is farmed. James tells me that this is an advantage because the fattier consistency means the fish doesn't dry out too much. Click here to see sample menus. Warning, you will start to salivate and want to plan a trip to Fife imminently.
So I was totally wrong about the easy life. There is skill and dedication, though I have never known James to appear anything other than laid back. And the end result is fabulous too. That bite of lunch I referred to was some of the best smoked salmon I've ever eaten. Don't take my word for it. If you go on to the website you can read what Jay Rayner had to say. The East Pier Smokehouse, he wrote, is the most perfect place in all the world right now.
*Damp and miserable
East Pier Smokehouse, East Pier, St Monans, Fife KY10 2AR
Check the website for details as opening times vary.