If you think you’ve had good smoked salmon, think again. Renowned fish smoker, Sally Barnes, is a master at all things wild fish – from filleting, to smoking, to salting and brining, and everything in between. Sally started the Woodcock Smokery 4 decades ago, selling her products online and offering intimate masterclasses.
With a firm and unfaltering stance for sustainability, Sally Barnes has won the respect of some of the top producers and chefs in the food industry, both nationally and internationally, and now supplies some of the Michelin starred restaurants around Ireland with her deep knowledge of true, natural fish from West Cork waters.
Can you tell me about your own background in the food industry?
As a student, I worked in kitchens in local pubs, learning all the time. My mum was a great cook; she inspired us all (4 daughters), and we all still love to prepare food from scratch. When I came to Ireland, I eventually married a commercial, inshore, fisherman, had direct access to day-boat fish which I had to learn how to prepare for our meals, without having income which would allow ‘exotic’ ingredients (brandy/cream, and most cookery books which I owned required such extras). I very quickly realised that fresh fish needs almost no further adornments – just a bit of butter/salt/pepper, bake in the oven, on the bone, wrapped in foil. Absolutely delicious, and fantastically simple.
Circumstances dictated the next move: an unpaid invoice for fish resulted in us acquiring a smoking kiln, which I taught myself to use initially, experimenting with salting, different woods, different cures, and different species of locally-available fresh fish. After 10 years, and children then in secondary school, I had more time, and studied ‘Food Production Systems’ with the Open University, as a fisherman’s wife by necessity is a single-parent (and I had no family here to help me), my brain was atrophying, needed a good massage, and that is precisely what the OU allowed.
It also taught me what the various processes I was using were actually doing, regarding microbiological controls and why salt does what it does. This gave me huge confidence in my methods, whilst still retaining a degree of traditional processes. No dyes or additives, as I was feeding my family. Keep it simple – fresh fish to begin with, and lots of patience and care, both for customers, family, and my own self-worth. And by necessity, I deliberately kept my business small enough that I could manage my many tasks single-handedly, until my back gave out. As I work exclusively with wild locally-sourced fish, and populations are highly variable year on year, it was not wise to chase big contracts/more outlets, as I could never guarantee supply. Working WITH Mother Nature was key.
What inspired you to set up your business? Did you notice a gap in the market?
Desperation during winter months, when small inshore boats were stuck in the harbour for weeks on end due to bad weather. The only kippers which were available here were dyed bright orange, rubbery-fleshed things. I knew I could do better, using our own local stocks of fine fat herrings. As a multi-cultural community, smoked wild salmon was a familiar food to visitors, but not so for the locals initially. But wild fresh salmon were on most tables around our coasts then…sadly that is not the case now. Most smoked fish had been dyed, or had ‘smoke-flavour’ applied to them. NOT for me!
How did you set up the business and how has it been growing over time?
It was a huge leap of faith in myself to begin with, having to approach banking institutions for a loan to purchase stock, until it struck me that it was ME doing THEM a favour by borrowing. And I attended many courses to develop financial skills which I lacked. ANCO ran courses in Cork City in those days, in ‘How to Start your Own Successful Business’, and this was of enormous benefit.
The fluctuating nature of fisheries would not allow me to grow the business further than I have done. Unreliability and seasonality of stock is always an issue when working with wild materials, so growing big has never been an option. And I am too aware of declining stocks. I purchase enough to keep my own bills covered, so I am trying to work and live sustainably. As one soul.
Where do you source the ingredients used to make your product(s)?
As far as possible, I source locally-caught fresh fish from Baltimore/Union Hall. I like to support other local businesses. Times have changed dramatically though. Inshore fishing is almost gone, due mostly to the ban on drift-netting at sea and the inability to make any kind of living without the boost in annual incomes which that wild salmon fishery allowed. Now, it is very rare to find anybody who has access to our precious wild salmon. I have to source those from the Blackwater River, many miles from home, from the last of the commercial draft- and snap-netsmen. They are also vanishing, along with their incredible skills and knowledge of the fish. This is truly a tragedy.
Can you tell me about some of the benefits associated with your product(s)?
The products are all very natural; nothing is added apart from salt, hardwood smoke, and time (and some passion too!). Oily fish have fabulous Omega oils, vital for our cells, plus vitamins and minerals which we might lack from our diets these days. Salmon also have many other positive benefits in human bodies, but this applies strictly to WILD fish, who eat what they like to eat, not what is financially expedient for share-holders. We have been consuming wild salmon for millenia, and our bodies recognise the value in that food, as soon as it hits our mouth. Very healthy food.
How has working with Euro-Toques Ireland impacted your business?
It has been a joy to engage with Euro-Toques, not least because they honoured me with an award for my craft. Plus, education has always been part of my life (I attended teacher training college after leaving school, studied for 2 and a half years before having to leave…)
I love meeting the enthusiastic young chefs, sharing some knowledge and information with them, as they too may become customers in future. Plus, they (hopefully) learn a bit more about the situation in Ireland with our fish, and why so many fisherfolk are leaving the industry.
What has been your favourite part of working with Euro-Toques Ireland?
Meeting all those lovely people, and those wonderful young chefs! They inspire me constantly.
How important has social media been for you in spreading the word?
Vital really, for somebody who appreciated the ‘word-of-mouth’ advertising at the start of my business! It’s not my forté, but I quickly realised, after having a teaching space created alongside my smokery, and hoping to attract clients on my courses, that social media is the way forwards now.
What makes your product unique?
Each and every piece of fish receives individual attention. This would be virtually impossible in a larger production system. I love the salmon. They, like myself, fight currents all their lives!
Where can people get your product?
We have a good online ‘shop’, selling directly to end-users, but also sell through several independent stores around the country, when we can supply them. Brexit has been total chaos, although we still supply Neal’s Yard Dairy in London with wild smoked salmon each Christmas. It’s a tradition. Sheridans Cheesemongers too, naturally, always very supportive of small producers of quality foods.
The Winding Stair, Assassination Custard, Ballynahinch Castle, Piglet Wine Bar, Camus Farm Kitchen, Glebe Cafe, sadly now gone; the Fumbally, Lilliput Stores, Organico, and 2 local Supervalu shops, all have been great supporters, when and if we can access enough fresh fish for them.
Local restaurants are great; Casey’s of Baltimore have been great supporters for decades! An Sugan, The Chestnut, Dunmore House Hotel; and of course, Ballymaloe House, and Cookery School, encouraged me to keep doing what I do. I so miss Myrtle Allen, an incredible advocate for good, fresh, and fair food, which Darina still promotes to this day. She was such a special mentor.
We also offer tasting sessions in ‘The Keep’, so-called as it’s a space to share and protect traditional skills which are disappearing very fast, and may be vital for future generations. The skills are not being taught in schools, even simple essential skills, like being able to cook for oneself.
Are there any other small Irish food producers you admire?
All the artisan cheesemakers; Wildwood Vinegars, Terra Ignis Ferments, Brown Envelope Seeds, Lisheen Greens, Macroom Buffalo, Lettercollum Kitchen Projects, Caitlin Ruth, and others who have been forced to leave the industry. Heartbreaking for us all; I am also a consumer concerned about the quality of foods available out there.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since going into business?
Drastic reduction in the numbers and quality of fish are not helping any of us. 5% quota for Irish boats is insanity, this is an island nation. A few benefit from c.16% quota, but that’s for species like mackerel and herring, not the high-value species which used to abound.
Overbearing regulatory controls which don’t take into account the scale of the operations, nor the skills of the producers, because these artisan methods are not being taught in training colleges… mass-production is, and that is making life very difficult for all small producers.
What do you feel is your biggest achievement to date with this business?
Being awarded the Euro-Toques Craft Award in 2018, and then the Guild of Irish Food Writers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022; winning the Supreme Champion Award at the Great Taste Awards in the UK in 2006 was life-changing.
Could you ever have imagined doing anything else with your life?
Sometimes in my dreams, I would have loved to share my knowledge and skills with other women on the planet who need financial independence wherever they are – if I managed it here, as a ‘blow-in’ without any family to back/help me, then I guess those skills can be shared with others.
What does the future hold for your business?
Fish stocks are in dire straits, for many human-induced reasons. I fear the wild salmon need immediate intervention (clean up rivers, leave their spawning grounds intact just in case stocks recover suddenly; reduce angling pressures, as these are not essential activities). It looks a tad bleak, so teaching and sharing the knowledge, encouraging more people to eat and enjoy fresh fish, by offering tasting and educational experiences, will be the way forwards.
If we just give Mother Nature a helping hand by stopping our interferences, and our polluting ways, She will amaze us by sorting out the mess. But She needs all our help. There’s just too much greed in the world. If we have a warm dry bed, a roof over our heads, food in our bellies and clean water to drink, we really are rich, and need nothing more. Good friends are a help!