Kingfisher Smoke House
words: annie studholme images: annie studholme & supplied
In sheltered Takamatua Bay on Banks Peninsula a centuries-old skill passed down through the generations is behind a boutique salmon smoking business finding favour with foodies nationwide.
KINGFISHER SMOKE HOUSE HAS its origins in Herefordshire in the United Kingdom, where English-born Neil Barnett and his New Zealand wife, Rebecca, successfully ran a smoke house for more than twenty years alongside a busy turf business.
Taught by a third-generation family of smokers, Neil perfected his skills smoking a wide range of products including Scottish salmon, farmed rainbow trout, mackerel, Finnan haddock, herring for kippers and king prawns.
When the couple returned Down Under in 2002, re-establishing a smoking business was always on the agenda, leading them straight to Banks Peninsula. “It was always part of the game plan to start a smoke house. We knew Akaroa produced some of the best sea-run farmed salmon in the country. It was a no brainer,” explains Neil.
He says its success relies on the quality of the raw product, and Akaroa Salmon are second to none. Revered for its superior taste, texture and consistency over its fresh water relatives, Akaroa Salmon is farmed sustainably in the cold, clean waters of the Akaroa Harbour.
The farm itself is quality focused. It uses low energy fishmeal that is more like the salmon’s ‘natural’ diet in the wild and pen density is kept low, allowing the fish to grow in a more natural environment which creates a finer textured muscle and flesh, explains Neil.
Not too dissimilar to the Scottish salmon Neil was used to handling in the UK, the Akaroa Salmon arrives fresh at his door on the day it’s harvested, gutted, descaled and gilled on ice. “It was swimming in the ocean this morning,” he quips.
From there, it’s cut into whole fillets and dry salted, not brined, before being vertically hung in the smoker for 24 hours. Using authentic artisan curing and cold smoking methods, the fillets are cooked slower, cooler and longer to retain their natural oils, producing an exquisitely moist, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth taste.
Brought all the way from the UK, Neil designed the purpose-built smoker from scratch. It uses whole logs of oak, including the bark, rather than sawdust or woodchips to ensure the best flavour from the wood smoke.
Neil likens it to having a great cup of coffee from freshly ground beans – the flavour has just been released in the grinding process as it is being brewed, as opposed to a coffee brewed from beans ground days or weeks ago. “Once wood is chipped or is in the form of sawdust, the flavours are quite different and lost.”
He uses whole English oak logs as oak wood smoke has a more delicate, almost sweeter flavour, which enhances the flavour of the salmon without overpowering it.
Reluctant to give too much away, Neil describes smoking as an art. “It is an art to know how to smoke something that you simply can’t pick up by reading a book. Google probably isn’t going to be of much help either,” he smiles. “It’s all those little things that I do, that collectively, make the difference. I enjoy that hands-on side of it.”
While many people can hot smoke in their backyard, traditional cold smoking is just too difficult for most to master. Success requires scrupulous attention to the smallest of details, with Neil getting up through the night to monitor its progress. The result is a smoked salmon that has a distinctive, slightly sweet flavour imparted from the oak, holds together nicely and isn’t too oily.
After smoking, the salmon is cooled and trimmed by Neil. Then Rebecca meticulously pin-bones and hand-slices it before it’s vacuum-packed and packaged for sale in 100- and 150-gram packets. In a bid to waste as little of the salmon as possible, any leftovers are made into Kingfisher Smoke House’s own divine smoked salmon paté, which combines cream cheese, fresh horseradish, lemon juice and pepper. They also do hot smoking which creates a fuller, smoky-sweet flavour through the whole piece of salmon, not just on the surface.
They use no artificial additives or preservatives during the curing and smoking process, just the essential salt and oak wood smoke. The salmon is then vacuum-packed and ready to eat straight from the packet, lasting well in the fridge for up to three weeks.
From the idyllic surroundings of the old Takamatua Lavender Farm, which they purchased in 2007, it’s been six years since the Barnetts started selling products commercially straight from their on-site kitchen. It’s a real husband and wife team effort. Rebecca is equally as passionate about the product, spending hours filleting, pin-boning and slicing when she’s not on duty as a nurse at the Akaroa Health Centre.
Business started off small, with a simple stall at the Akaroa Farmers’ Market during the spring and summer months. As word got out, so did their client base with many customers returning week after week.
For the past two years they’ve also regularly attended the Christchurch Farmers’ Market at Riccarton House. Their products have now attracted the attention of retailers nationwide with stockists in all the major centres including four Farro Fresh Stores across Auckland, and Moore Wilson in Wellington. Locally they offer door sales and it’s also available at The Peninsula General Store and the Akaroa Butchery, and Café Berlin in Christchurch, or online via their website.
While their cold smoked product is at the higher end of the scale, retailing for $170 per kilo, many profess it’s worth every cent on taste alone. “Yes, it’s more expensive, but you won’t find anything like it in the supermarket,” says Neil. “People are blown away by the taste of it. Tastings are the secret really. Once they have tasted it, they know the difference. You can buy cheaper, but you can’t buy better.”
Although the markets are a tie, Neil has really come to enjoy that personal contact it gives him with their customers. He would like to do more in-store tastings, markets and fêtes, but finding the time is proving difficult. “They are great fun. I really enjoy meeting and talking to people about the product. They are really our shop window so to speak,” he says.
While sales have continued to increase, growth has been slow. The business got the much-needed boost it craved when it received national acclaim for being awarded a coveted Cuisine Artisan Award for its Cold Smoked Salmon back in 2014. “That gave us credibility overnight,” explains Neil. “We did see a huge increase in sales after that with customers wanting our products from all over New Zealand.”
For Neil, sales are only one part of it though. The smoke house is their passion. Their emphasis is on quality, not quantity; sticking to being a niche business, rather than branching into mainstream via supermarkets.
Having had a busy large-scale business in the UK, Neil is no rush to go back to the long-hours and staff hassles associated with a big business. “We moved to New Zealand for a change in lifestyle, and I never want to go back to that,” he says.