A frequent question asked from our many of our guests during their stay is where we source our breakfast fish from. The answer is L. (Luke) Robson & Sons, home of the world-famous `Craster Kipper’ and located, of course, in the beautiful and picturesque little fishing village of the same name, just 15 miles away on the beautiful Northumberland Coast
Being big supporters of local produce and businesses, we were interested in knowing more about Robsons and the process chain on how our breakfast fish is sourced, cured and prepared. We decided that we would ask the question if a visit behind the scenes was possible. We contacted the owner, Neil Robson, who was up for the idea and very kindly gave up an early March afternoon before the lock-down, to have a chat with us about the business and where it is now.
We were very honoured to have our own private tour around the factory, to meet the team and to be shown how the fish is processed. In previous years visitors to Robson’s could freely venture into the factory to watch the fish being machine-split and to see all the action, including the smokehouses. This practice ended in 1997 due to Health and Safety measures.
Starting off with a little bit of history; Robson’s Smokehouse was built in 1856 by the nearby Craster Family and is now the only smokehouse left in the village. James Robson, Neil’s Great Grandfather, was the first member of the family to smoke under the Robson name, back in the 1800’s. Robson’s, now in its’ fifth generation, is still very much a family affair, and is currently run with Neil at the helm, closely assisted by his two daughters, Olivia and Georgia together with a dedicated team of seventeen workers, many of which have been with Robson’s for many years. One such member of staff is John, pictured here with a very lively lobster! John has a wealth of knowledge and explained where the fish comes from and the process from sea to plate. Products sold at Robson’s, in addition to kippers, include smoked cod and haddock, lobster, crabs and smoked salmon.
The `kipper’ is actually a herring and was previously gutted and split by hand. Since the 1950’s this has been carried out by a special splitting machine seen below. Herring are caught in the North Sea, around Norway, with the cod, haddock and salmon sourced from Shetland in Scotland. It is then brined, smoked and packed. Kippers are placed onto tenterhooks in pairs (this is where the saying `on tenterhooks’ comes from!). Tenterhook racks, in previous years, were made of wood with the tenterhook itself, a galvanised nail. This ended when Robson’s were chosen to supply to high-end supermarket chain, Waitrose so the tenterhooks are now made of stainless steel to meet Health and Safety Regulations. All fish produced by Robson’s are MSC Certified and adhere to sustainable fishing methods.
The herring are then placed in large smokehouses, with the smoking process carried out in the traditional way with locally sourced oak chippings. The fish stay in the smokehouses for 12 hours until they are a warm, golden colour with the most amazing aroma and of course, with their wonderful unique taste and come out as kippers.
We managed to capture these very smoky shots of inside one of the lit smokehouses, with some kippers in situ and the end product, all ready to be sold in The Kipper Shop and to be distributed in the UK and around the world. Approximately 18,000 herring (5 tonnes) are produced every week in the High Season and around 3 tonnes of smoked salmon for the Festive period. This quietens down to between 150-200 kilos in the Low Season for smoked salmon and around 100 kilos of haddock and cod. Robson’s main customer, as mentioned earlier, is Waitrose but the kippers and other fish are also sold in many regional shops and outlets in Northumberland such as Berwick Garden Centre and Turnbulls in Alnwick as well as being able to order via their online shop.
We also were shown how the smoked salmon is prepared and cut into thin slices to be vacuum-packed. Here are George and John hard at work cutting and preparing, with Graham also giving us a demonstration on how he uses the mechanical slicer to get those perfect slices which we serve to our guests at breakfast.
Craster Kippers are sold in pairs, along with local `Catches of the Day’, kipper pate, dressed crabs, cockles and other smoked fish which can be bought from on-site shop. The Kipper Shop has branched out in recent years to stock other local food and delicatessen products such as local jams, speciality oils and artisan bread. Frozen mussels, squid and crab are also available. There is also an on-site restaurant, Craster Seafood Restaurant, which is open between April and September.
We loved the wonderful, old photographs scattered around the shop…at this time of day the counter looking bare as the fish had not surprisingly all but gone! Fish can also be bought online where you can arrange to have shipped directly to your door, either vacuum-packed or loose.
And here is the finished result!…..two of our most popular breakfast options and which we are proud to serve at Post Office House Bed and Breakfast. We also serve Robson’s smoked haddock as a special addition to our breakfast menu at Christmas and New Year. Take a trip to The Kipper Shop and take some fish home with you, kippers and other fish can be bought vacuum-packed, a reminder of your holiday in Northumberland! Another must-do when visiting Craster is a walk along to Dunstanburgh Castle, it is simply stunning, that’s all we are going to say! Treat yourself also to one of Mick Oxley’s beautiful seascapes, you can find Mick in his gallery just a few metres from Robson’s, then call in for a pint at the Jolly Fisherman.
On a final note, we would like to thank Neil, John and the team for allowing us to look around and for letting us take photographs. We had a fascinating insight into how Robson’s is run and wonderful to see this long-established family firm clearly flourishing in an ever changing and challenging world. L.Robson & Sons Ltd
Photographs: © Post Office House Bed and Breakfast 2020