Whitby kippers - one of the finest delicacies of the North East

When I last went to Whitby I was 10-years-old. After a fractious journey (for my parents) consisting of my brother and I fighting over sleeping space in the backseats to a soundtrack of Alexander O'Neal, we arrived at a grand old hotel on the cliff top (now a YHA and tearoom)...the spectre of Whitby Abbey casting a shadow over the 'spooky' property.

I was yet to read Dracula, but had taken with me Robert Swindell's Room 13, and between tarnishing my brother's room handles with fart spray from the local joke shop, eating fish and chips on the seafront, walking in Heartbeat land, and working my way through myriad flavours of dairy fudge, I could be found with my nose keenly poked in its pages. In hindsight, a book about a creepy hotel wasn't the best choice for the trip considering our supranatural location.

An air of mystique seemed to shroud the North Yorkshire town. And it pervades to this day.

Returning as an adult, with my husband and teens in tow, that sense of magic and mystery I felt visiting this corner of the UK as a child was still with me. Maybe its the proliferation of goths (this is the goth capital of Britain). Perhaps its the eerie, hollow, foreboding body of the abbey, forever entwined with Bram Stoker's Dracula. Or, more likely, the fact we'd been on a ghost tour in Robin Hood's Bay the night before - one of the tales speaking of the grotesque 'hand of glory' held at Whitby Museum.

Made by thieves as a kind of witchcraft to conceal their crimes, these macabre talismans were conjured by slicing the hand off a cadaver, pickling it, and stuffing with mandrake. The fingers, once lit like candles, would let the scoundrels know which house to target, and render its occupants helpless in their beds.

Now that's enough to give anyone the spooks.

After a couple of pints at the superb Whitby Brewery and tap room (try the Abbey Blonde and coffee/chocolate/liquorice-scented Jet Black), we pootled down into town, to find it much the same as I remembered.

Charming cobbled streets. Pastel-shaded window panes. A proliferation of jewellery stores selling pieces studded with local jet stone. Naturally we had to buy lucky ducks made with Whitby glass. I filled a bag with fudge from Justin's Chocolaterie (some of the best in the UK - so good my mum used to have it shipped to me for Christmas). And we managed to snag a table at the heavily-acclaimed Magpie Cafe along the harbour. Although the fish and chips were decent, and the service fantastic, I couldn't help feeling slightly disappointed by the experience overall. My dish of the Magpie Medley, combined several pieces of overcooked seafood (including bouncy scallops) in a wishy-washy, only-very-slightly-garlicky cream sauce.

If you're visiting this part of the world, to get the best out of the experience I suggest heading there slightly out of season, or on a summer's weekday. Weekends in Whitby heave with tourists. Pop by on a Saturday and you'll find yourself cheek to jowl with every other Tom, Dick and Harry, vying for space outside shop fronts, and desperately queuing for food.

We went on a Thursday and, despite it being high summer, found the town easily walkable - ie we weren't jammed in like sardines.

On the last day of our holiday I had one mission....to get kippers.

Car packed, and after a juddering journey with an overloaded Volvo up and down the county's undulating roads, we found ourselves in Whitby on a Sunday. Chaos.

I left Mr J and the kids in the car at the headland car park near the Abbey and jogged down the 199 steps over to Fortune's Kippers at 22 Henrietta Street - a gorgeously-kept part of Whitby.

You might think smoked fish is an odd thing to want to lug home in the car - why not loads of beer and wine? - but a properly smoked kipper is a thing of beauty.

I grew up on them. In fact, in the 80s and 90s I remember a boiled kipper with butter, brown toast and a wedge of lemon being as ubiquitous on hotel menus as a full English.

My parents were huge lovers of walking holidays, and led my brother and I to believe that a breakfast of kipper was something fortifying and sustaining. I'm sure I thought, as a tot, that after all dad's talk of healthy fats and oils, the fish would somehow coat my skin from the inside out, giving me a kind of built-in waterproofing, ready for trudging hillsides in the inclement weather.

And it's partially true. Not, of course, that kippers'll make you weatherproof, but they are packed with good fats and protein. A great start to the day - just wash your hair before leaving the house!

It's a shame the poor old kipper, indeed the herring, has fallen out of favour. As society and technology have taken leaps and bounds in a forward direction, heavily-processed and easy-to-grab meals have overtaken many of the slower gastronomic pleasures of days of yore.

We're more likely to shove a breakfast bar or pre-made smoothie in our gobs of a morning, than (shock horror) sit at the table laboriously picking bones from grilled fish.

I can't help but be saddened by the decline in popularity of one of Britain's most readily available seafoods.

In the early 1900s the herring industry was booming, from Scotland, all the way down the east coast. In East Anglia, my home region, the so-called Silver Darlings, defined a generation of workers.

Today, fishermen I've spoken to will often throw their catch back - it's worth a pittance.

Anyway, back to Whitby, and the jaunty, wonky little building that houses Fortune's Kippers - and has done so for five generations, once doing a roaring trade in nationwide kipper delivery parcels.

William Fortune founded the business in 1872 and, thankfully, little has changed in the intervening years.

Plump herrings are frozen after catching to preserve their condition, then defrosted, split from top to bottom, hand-gutted, brined and cured before being smoked for 18 hours over smouldering oak, beech and softwood.

I've eaten many a kipper in my time, but for me these are the definitive version.

Pop your head around the door from 9am to 3pm Monday to Saturday (or until around 2ish Sundays) and nab yourself a pair of conker-coloured beauties - from just over £4 for a small duo, to a very reasonable £5.10 for two fleshy, handsome slips of fish.

It's cash only at the moment, so have your change ready.

Get 'em home and there are multiple ways to prepare kippers. You could try jugging (ie cooking by steeping in boiling water). They are easily baked. But I prefer lining a deep tray with foil and grilling them a few minutes either side, serving with lemon and heavily buttered toast, just like when I was a kid.

Forget a knife and fork. Good food doesn't require politeness. Allow the kipper to cool slightly, then (with napkins at the ready), rip into the fish, picking out the bones along the way, and savouring every bite.

Fortune's kippers are as good as it gets. You can taste the sweetness of the brine. And the smoke is there but not so powerful as to override the buttery oils of the fish.

If I've got a bit of time, I'll debone a couple of kippers and mash the flesh with an equal amount of salted butter, some lemon zest, a little grated garlic and black pepper to make a rough pate (they also sell pate in the shop). And it makes the best kedgeree ever.

If you like smoked mackerel or salmon give kippers a chance too. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Find out more about Fortune's Kippers here.

99 views0 comments