The best smoked salmon in the world, at least in this smoked-salmon lover's opinion, comes from Ireland, and the wares of one of that country's top artisanal salmon smokers, Birgitta Hedin-Curtin of Burren Smokehouse in County Clare, are now available on a regular basis for the first time in the U.S.
Other excellent producers of this extraordinary treat, including Anthony Creswell of Ummera Smokehouse in Timoleague; Frank Hederman of Belvelly Smoke House in Cobh; and the idiosyncratic Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery in Castletownshend (all in County Cork), have flirted with the American market in recent years but have pretty much given it up, at least for now, because of shipping costs and import problems (U.S. health and customs officials, the smokers complain, are highly inconsistent in enforcement and sometimes delay the delivery of perishable foods for no apparent reason until they spoil). Hedin-Curtin, though, has perservered, gaining FDA approval for her salmon and joining with several other small-scale artisanal Irish food producers to consolidate shipments. She has signed an exclusive deal with Dean & DeLuca to sell both her hot- and cold-smoked salmon at six of their stores and through their mail-order catalogue.
Birgitta Hedin-Curtin shows off some smoked salmon (Photo courtesy Burren Smokehouse).
Hedin-Curtin is a Swede, married to an Irishman. Though she'd had no fish-smoking experience in her home country, her father was an avid fisherman, especially for eel, which another local fisherman smoked for them, and she grew up knowing seafood well. She became a marine biologist, in fact, specializing in the study of seaweed. She met her Irish husband, Peter Curtin, on a visit to the Emerald Isle and they settled in the town of Lisdoonvarna (site of Europe's largest annual matchmaking festival, drawing around 40,000 hopefuls every year), in the middle of The Burren — a large tract of dramatically rocky landscape (of the kind known as karst).
The Burren is a special part of Ireland, with an eerie, barren beauty, especially magical at twilight; it also boasts an unusally temperate climate for this part of the world, with the temperature almost never dropping below 42 degrees Fahrenheit, so it hosts an abundance of flora and fauna, some of it found nowhere else on the island. And yet this is not an out-of-the-way place: The famous Cliffs of Moher are only 10 miles or so from Lisdoonvarna, and the colorful city of Galway is just to the north. (Photo courtesy Burren Smokehouse)
Peter Curtin had fished professionally around Galway Bay, and in 1989 he and his wife decided to try their hand at smoking salmon. They use fish raised organically on Clare Island, and also farmed organic or eco-labeled salmon from various sources in counties Mayo, Galway, Kerry, and Donegal. Ocean drift-net fishing of salmon was outlawed in Ireland in 2006, so the Curtins had no access to wild salmon for smoking—until this year, when permits were given to allow the taking of a small quantity of draft-netted salmon from the Blackwater and Nore rivers. The first wild salmon Burren Smokehouse processed under the new regulations was sent to Ross Lewis, chef-proprietor of the excellent Chapter One in Dublin, for an historic banquet he cooked at Dublin Castle for Queen Elizabeth earlier this year.
Smoked salmon samples at Dean & DeLuca (Photo courtesy Ali Rosen).
Burren Smokehouse isn't sending any wild smoked salmon our way yet, but what Dean & DeLuca is selling is very good. The cold-smoked organic salmon is luminous reddish-orange in color, firm but moist, with a subtle halo of smoke; the eco-labeled version is similar but a little softer and smoother, almost buttery in texture. Hedin-Curtin recommends serving either one on good Irish brown bread with good Irish butter (the Kerrygold brand is widely sold in the U.S.) The hot-smoked salmon, in effect smoke-baked, is light pink and flaky, and has a wonderfully intense salmon flavor. This works well in salad, or, gently heated, can be served as a main course. Dean & DeLuca is also importing the smokehouse's cold-smoked salmon-colored rainbow trout, equally good. Burren Smokehouse's specialties aren't cheap — a 12.6-ounce assortment of three kinds of smoked salmon is $60 in the store's Halloween catalogue — but it's great stuff, well worth splurging on.