If you’re visiting Whitby for the first time, you’ll undoubtedly make your way to the famously steep steps up to the Abbey, along the wobbly cobbles on Church Street, at which point you’ll be hit with the sweet, oaky aroma of kippers being smoked. Follow your nose, and half way up Henrietta Street you’ll find Fortune’s, a smokehouse that’s been going for almost 150 years.
In 1872 William Fortune founded the smokehouse; his son Martin worked alongside him and also ran the donkey rides on Whitby beach. The kippers were packed into little wooden boxes ready to be sent by train all over the country; ‘6 pairs of kippers sent by parcel post for 2/- ‘reads the original sign in the shop window – mail order long before Amazon existed!
Fifth generation brothers Derek and Barry took the reins from their father on his retirement – and now the 6th generation are snapping at their heels.
If you’re lucky, the smokehouse doors will be open and you’ll get a glimpse of the jet-black walls, tarry with decades of industry.
There was a time when Whitby landed a huge amount of herring on the quay, but the 1977 herring ban lasted six years and saw the end of locally caught fish. Today it comes from the North-East Atlantic Quarter off the Faroe Islands, caught by Norwegian fishermen and frozen immediately.
‘Kippers are herring that have been split, brined and cold smoked’ says Barry. ‘The fish are defrosted overnight, split, gutted, cleaned – all by hand – then placed in brine for forty minutes.’
Inside the smokehouse three different fires cure the fish. ‘The first dries them out’ says Derek. ‘The second is a heavy fire using oak and beech chippings which burns through the night. If needed, a third fire finishes them off, resulting in the distinctive dark gold colour and unique sweet, smoky flavour. We’re still using the same method we have always done since our great great grandfather William started the business.’
And the next generation? Derek’s sons Daniel and Matthew, and Barry’s daughters Lacey and Bethany have picked up the baton. Bethany does a roaring trade behind the counter in the tiny shop, wrapping pairs of kippers in old copies of the Whitby Gazette as a queue snakes down the street. ‘It’s not glamorous’ Bethany smiles, ‘it’s impossible to get the smell out of your clothes – but I’m proud to be keeping it in the family, and I love that people come from all over the world to buy our kippers!’