A Fish Tale

A Fish Tale

Spink is the first tradesman that golf fans encounter when they come in the north gate at this year's British Open.
Fred Vuich/SI

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Iain R. Spink describes himself as a “fifth-generation Arbroath smokie maker.” It’s an accurate description, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do justice to a man who smokes fish in a whisky barrel. Spink is the first tradesman that golf fans encounter when they come in the north gate at this year’s British Open, and it’s safe to say that he is the only one wielding a spade and a hatchet.

“This is the first Open I’ve done,” Spink said this morning as he strung pairs of haddock on iron bars. “I do a lot of food fairs, game fairs and farmers’ markets. I’m taking Arbroath smokies on the road!”

Asked why he was wearing shorts on a cold, wet day, Spink laughed. “I didn’t expect it to be 13 degrees in the middle of July. I’ve never seen a worse summer.” Fortunately, Spink’s cooking kept him by the pit fire. His fuels of choice are oak and beech, over which he dangles the trussed fish. He then covers the top of the barrel with wet burlap bags to dampen the flames and produce steam.
“I do it exactly the way it was done 100 years ago,” Spink said.

Smokie scholarship is still in its infancy, but Spink says its roots are Scandinavian. The classic version came out of Auchmithie, a small fishing village near the North Sea port of Arbroath, and by the late 1800s transplanted Norsemen were sawing barrels in half, sinking them in the earth and lining the bottoms with slate.

“If it’s not a haddock, it’s not a smokie,” Spink says, “but we also do rainbow trout, and it’s very good. A bit oilier than haddock, but that’s a question of taste, isn’t it?”

It is a question of taste, so several of us spent the lunch hour on our feet, eating smokies and trout off paper plates while watching the golf on a big screen in the tented village. My smokie was sublime — moist and tender with just a hint of woodsmoke in the white flesh. It was, without question, the best thing I have ever tasted on a golf course, rivaled only by the chocolate-covered strawberries served at the 2003 Presidents Cup in South Africa. The pink meat of the smoked rainbow trout was almost as splendid, but the only way to fairly rate the two fish is to eat them in reverse order. Which I plan to do tomorrow.

Apparently I don’t have to worry about Spink running out of fish before then. “The first two days have been dead,” he said, smiling to show that it wasn’t getting him down. “We’re too far from the golf. People walk past us on the way in, and when they come back at the end of the day they’ve spent all their money and eaten all their food.”

Yesterday, maybe. When we left Spink at the gate, he had a nice line of customers and perhaps a dozen happy eaters standing around with their plated smokies.

Carnoustie 2007 could be remembered as the Smokie Open.