The walk down to the beach at Auchmithie is slippery to a townie in inappropriate shoes. The seagulls caw in the falling afternoon light; the smoke from an open fire drifts up the path and into my hair, my jacket, my eyes. I am after a smokie for my tea, the elusive fish that I like to eat warm with wodges of brown, seed-crusted bread and thick butter.
It is in this fishing village, a short drive north from Arbroath, that the smokie first appeared. The local fishwives cooked whole haddock on sticks over whisky barrels by their thousands, though whether they would approve of my habit of flaking the creamy flesh into little dishes, drizzling it with cream and a dash of grainy mustard and sliding it under the grill till it bubbles, I wouldn't know.
Iain Spink, fifth-generation smokie maker, is pulling blackened jute sacking over a barrel of burning oak and beech logs. He threads string-tied pairs of small, line-caught haddock on to the metal rods that sit over the fire then tucks them under the sacking. This is what he does at farmers' markets to the cries of local children who spot the clouds of grey, fish-infused plumes: 'The smokie man is here!'
Smoked fish is a winter perennial on my shopping list: smoked eel for creamed horseradish and watercress sandwiches; mackerel for fat fishcakes and for mashing into a lemon-spiked pâté; haddock for poaching in milk and eating with mashed potatoes; a kipper for Sunday breakfast, and salmon for pigging out on with dark and treacly rye bread. The Arbroath smokie is a rare treat, its copper'n'bronze skin and tarry brown string making it the most beautiful of all the fishes; its soft, almost creamy flesh mild and tasting only faintly of oak smoke.
Iain's fish are a revelation. As he peels back the skin to reveal the subtly cured fish, it falls away from the bones in juicy flakes. The flesh is barely cooked and is imbued with only a fleeting glimpse of the fire. It has a quivering texture, not unlike sashimi - I bet the Japanese would fall for their flavour and texture as much as their history. Legend has it that the first smokie was discovered and eaten by firemen in the embers of a burnt-out cottage in the town.
Iain's father was instrumental in getting this delicacy a PGI from the European Commission: the fish now has the same protected geographical status as Stilton. Iain prepares his fish from the local catch that has been cleaned and briefly salted in tubs then left for an hour over the coals. This hot-smoking cooks and cures so, unlike the cold-smoked kipper, they can be eaten without further ado.
You can add a smoked fish to Cullen Skink, the Scottish fish soup, or mash its meat with lemon juice to make a light spread for celery, or you can break it into rough, fishy shards and toss it into a warm potato salad with snipped chives and a thinned mayonnaise.
The seagulls are circling lower, the light is fading fast, and the glowing embers are turning to dust. There's a row of little fish, warm and burnished gold, all of which are sold save two, which I wrap up in brown paper, and I struggle back up the cliff for my tea.
Hot smokies with cream and mustard
Last weekend I made an unapologetically creamy tea of Arbroath smokie with mustard and cheese, which we scooped up with hunks of crisp-crusted sourdough. A light dusting of Parmesan on top before the fish hits the grill will give a deeply savoury crust, but we used Spenwood, the hard sheep's-milk cheese made by Anne and Andy Wigmore in Berkshire. Serves 4 with bread.
3 Arbroath smokies (about 900g)
300ml double cream
2 tsps grainy mustard
4 heaped tbsps grated Parmesan, Pecorino or Spenwood
Light an overhead grill or set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Open up the smokies, peel off and discard the skin, and pull the flesh from the bones in large, jagged lumps. Divide the fish between four shallow ovenproof dishes, keeping the pieces fairly large.
In a small mixing bowl, mix the cream and mustard and stir in a grinding of salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt. Spoon the seasoned cream over the fish. Sprinkle 1 heaped tbsp of cheese on top of each dish and grill for 4 or 5 minutes till the top is golden and the cream is bubbling. (Or bake for 10-15 minutes in a hot oven.) Serve hot, with crusty bread or thick slices of toast.
Smokies with lemon and hot toast
A pure and simple spread. Serves 2 as a snack.
200g Arbroath smokies or smoked- mackerel flesh
ground white pepper
fresh bushy parsley
Mash the flesh of the fish with a fork and stir in a little salt, a pinch of white pepper and lemon juice to taste. The juice of half a lemon will probably be sufficient. Fold in a few tablespoons of finely chopped parsley. Spread on to hot toast or warm oatcakes.
Roast apples with cinnamon fruit compote
On cold days I sometimes lift the lid off the cinnamon jar and breathe in its sweet, smoky notes before scattering a pinch over toasted and buttered muffins. The whole quills and ground spice can be used to scent simple winter compotes of prunes or dried apricots. My breakfast last weekend consisted of baked apples served cold with a spoonful of cinnamon-flecked dried fruits to cheer us all up. Serves 2 as dessert or breakfast.
650g dessert or cooking apples
a pinch of cinnamon
the juice of ½ a lemon
For the compote:
100g dried figs
100g soft-dried dates
2 tbsps dried cranberries or cherries
a stick of cinnamon
2 tbsps honey
a little water
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Peel, quarter, core and roughly chop the apples. Put them in a baking dish, toss with the cinnamon and lemon, and tuck in the cloves.
Bake till the edges are lightly golden and soft enough to crush with a fork. Depending on the kind of apple, it takes 15-30 minutes. (This will keep in the fridge for a day or two.)
While the apples cook, snip the stalks from the figs, cut the fruit in halves or quarters and toss in a small saucepan with the dates and cranberries, cinnamon, honey and a few tablespoons of water. Bring to the boil then simmer and leave to bubble gently for about 15 minutes, till the fruit has plumped and softened. Spoon the apples into dishes, then top with the dried fruits.