Smart Consumer: Why we're all hooked on kippers -- the little fish making a big comeback
More and more of us are buying the seafood for cheap and nutritious dishes, writes Myles McWeeney
In the early 1960s, when wide and garish kipper ties were becoming a short-lived fashion statement, their maritime namesake, the bright orange kipper, a favourite breakfast and high-tea dish in Britain and Ireland, was beginning its rapid decline into culinary obscurity.
Cheap and nutritious they well might be, but kippers were seen as a passé wartime food. Who would eat such old-fashioned nosh when the ad men were cajoling everyone to go to work on an egg?
But, remarkably, the humble kipper, a herring by another name, is staging a real comeback.
In Britain, Sainsbury's has just reported that sales of kippers from its fresh fish counters were up by a whopping 79pc over the past year. Tesco says its sales were up 28pc.
Ireland, too, is experiencing a boom in kipper sales, albeit on a slightly more modest scale.
According to Barra McFeeley, Tesco Ireland's Buying Manager for Counter Fish, there has been significant growth in kipper sales, and the company is selling 44pc more kippers than they did last year.
"Indeed, over the past 12 weeks alone since the beginning of the year, we have seen an increase in the sales of kippers of over 34pc, with customers buying more fish in general from our counters," Mr McFeeley said.
"This might indicate that customers are looking more to quality, affordable ingredients as they recognise the health benefits associated with fish."
According to Graham Roberts, one of Ireland's top fish smokers who, with his wife Saoirse, operates the award-winning Connemara Smokehouse in Ballyconneely, kipper sales are on the up and up.
"While kippers would not be a huge part of our annual overall production, I would say sales have increased quite significantly in the last year or so, to the order of about 25pc," he said last week. "More people seem to be trying them, and that's perhaps because herrings are now flagged as one of the 'good' fish species, packed with healthy Omega 3 fish oils."
Graham says that a lot of customers are a bit older, and are coming back to a taste that they remember as being good when they were younger.
Herring, smoked or kippered, is a relatively cheap fish which goes a long way in these tough times to explain their increased popularity. The same economy shopping is spreading to the animal kingdom as well -- cheaper cuts of meat and offal are certainly back in vogue.
In the last couple of weeks eating out around Dublin, I have enjoyed lamb's kidneys in O'Connell's Restaurant in Donnybrook; liver, bacon and onions in the Mill House in Stillorgan; pig's trotters with snails in Locks Brasserie in Portobello; slow braised beef cheeks in L'Ecrivain; and lamb's tongues in port wine sauce in the King Sitric in Howth. These were the type of dishes that featured in the cook books of the 1950s and 1960s.
The King Sitric's chef/proprietor Aidan McManus says the reason for the renewal of interest in kippers and cuts of meat that were in their hey-day in the immediate aftermath of World War Two is the current recession. "It's as simple as that. Restaurateurs are trying to create margins that will keep them in business. We all have to source less expensive ingredients and do interesting things with them."
The trend translates to home cooking too. People are increasingly skipping the expensive cuts such as rack of lamb or roast leg of lamb and opting to buy shoulder, breast or neck of lamb, sometimes called scrag.
Rabbit, too, is making a big comeback -- both at home and in high end restaurants. At home, a rabbit needs just a few simple ingredients such as onions, carrots, peas and herbs and stock to be made into an economical, nutritious and delicious one-pot meal.
Pigeon, too, is back on many menus. Hugely popular on the continent, pigeon is relatively inexpensive and has a slightly gamey flavour. There are dozens of ways to cook the birds, but the simplest is to have your butcher remove the legs and wings, which you chop finely and braise to make a rich stock. The remainder of the bird, the double crown, is slathered in butter and roasted in a hot oven for six to 10 minutes.
Orla Broderick, Chairwoman of the Irish Food Writers' Guild, says the reason people choose the more frugal cuts when it comes to beef, lamb and pork is a combination of a need to save money and nostalgia.
"It makes them feel better eating the things that remind them of their childhood and better times," she said. "Living in suburbia as I do, I notice that a lot more people have turned to home cooking for dinner parties when a few years ago they would have entertained in restaurants. One of the recent best-selling cookbooks was Kevin Dundon's Home Cooking, which sold shedloads of copies."
Ms Broderick said that in her experience people are going back with enthusiasm to old-fashioned recipes such as cottage pie, Irish stew, simple fish pie, shepherds' pie and even macaroni cheese, and are not ashamed to use them when entertaining their friends at home.
Interestingly, these humble and homely dishes, can all now be seen on many mid-market restaurant menus.