master smoker Richard Penfold cares about tradition, and not for the bragging rights or cachet. But because he knows that smoking fish the way it has been done for centuries makes his products authentic in ways that matter to him and his customers.
Over the past ten years Penfold’s company, Stonington Seafoods, has developed an international reputation as a premier supplier of top-quality smoked fish, especially Scottish specialties like Finnan Haddie and kippers that he makes using traditional time-tested (time-intensive) methods.
Quality and authenticity are themes that run through Richard Penfold’s life—even beyond the unparalleled fish he’s known for. They also drive the “ultimate Maine” Stonington gardens he landscapes along with the planted beds behind his Deer Isle home and in the adjacent Quonset-style hothouse where we had this conversation.
On that brisk late-summer morning, midday sun warmed a grove of impossibly tall sun gold tomato plants on one side of the hut, and an incongruous jungle of tropical plants on the other. Soon, Richard said, the sun golds would be harvested, the beds re-planted with baby kale and leafy winter greens. Full sun all day means the ground never freezes no matter how cold it gets outside. So the plants will produce all winter. “Here we eat the seasons,” Richard told me. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.
Finnan Haddie and kippers are Scottish specialties. But your accent tells me you’re English. True?
Yes, but my father was in the Royal Air Force, so we moved around a lot. Twice we lived in Scotland, where I got to know the west coast from camping trips around Loch Torridon. After my final year of boarding school in Dorset—I wasn’t planning to go to college—I got a job at Hooke Springs Trout Farm. For some odd reason I decided I at age thirteen that I wanted to be a fish farmer. But after standing all day waist-deep in the water, measuring thousands of wriggling trout that were literally pooping all over me, college started to look good. So I enrolled in Plymouth Polytechnic's three-year degree Fishery Science program. Each summer, a group of us would drive up the coast and catch the ferry to Shetland (which we’d heard was a great place to party) to work at Ice Atlantic Seafoods Ltd. My first real fish factory job was tentering kippers.
What is tentering?
With kippers the herring is first split, then moved up a conveyor belt into a timed brine. Tentering is what happens after that. You take down the kippers and place them on wire mesh trays that go into the smoker.
So kippers are brined before they’re smoked?
With smoking, the fish is always brined first. I brine my kippers for one minute and forty-five seconds in a 70-degree brine. The best to ruin smoked fish is to oversalt it. I measure the salt carefully and also use a traditional brass brinometer—an antique I got at a historic fish curing shop in Aberdeen. The brinometer measures salinity, and of course a modern glass one would do. But I view this tool as part of my authentic story.
Some readers may not know what to do with kippers. How are they prepared?
Well, you can roast them in a hot oven topped with thinly sliced onion that absorbs all that delicious smoky oil. More recently I’ve been using a Scottish method called jug cooking. You fill a nice big ceramic jug with boiling water, roll up the kippers and stick them in for six minutes. That cooks them. They come out moist and tender—just add a few pats of butter and serve. The recipe is on my website; it’s bulletproof.
Your signature product is Finnan Haddie. Tell me about that.
Finnan Haddie is cold-smoked haddock. It’s famously used in Cullen Skink, a Scottish chowder made with onion, milk and cream. Another dish is Kedgeree, from the British Raj in India, where it’s cooked with Indian spices and served over basmati rice. Then there’s an omelet called Arnold Bennett, created by a chef at the Savoy Hotel for an author by that name. But smoked haddock? It’s so versatile; every Scottish family has their own recipe.
You mentioned that the haddock is cold smoked. What does that mean?
Well, there are two ways of smoking fish: hot and cold. In hot smoking, the fish gets fully cooked to FDA specs: a core temperature of 145F for 30 minutes. With cold smoking, you use a low temperature. At the end of the process the fish is still raw. Salmon is cold smoked and ready to eat. Finnan Haddie and kippers are also cold smoked, but they require cooking.
Where does your fish come from?
It’s all North Atlantic, which means from here up to Canada, and over to Iceland and Norway, where trade traditions go back centuries. My Finnan Haddie is made of fresh fillets of Icelandic haddock, the very best there is—hook caught, from the most responsible and sustainable haddock fishery in the world. I buy herring caught off Newfoundland from a company that’s been around for hundreds of years. Herring stocks are also well managed. Sustainability and premium quality go hand in hand. They both matter a great deal to me.
How did you get from Scotland to the States—and the Stonington area in particular?
After college, I went back to the Shetland fishery, where I worked my way up to freezer foreman. But after a couple of years I felt I needed a change. I signed up for the VSO, Volunteer Service Overseas, the UK equivalent of the Peace Corps. And I wound up getting a four-year contract in Vanuatu—
A tiny republic in the South Pacific—an amazing group of islands, very remote. They gave me a 50-foot boat and a budget to develop fisheries throughout a group of islands. Once the fishery was successfully established, I saw this lovely market of tourists living on sail boats who would anchor in Laman Bay. So with my local village community I funded a thatch-roofed market, where local people could sell crafts to the sailors. It worked out quite well.
Then three years into my contract, these two lovely young American women, Peace Corps volunteers, arrived and moved in next door to me. One was Mary, who later became my wife. We began hanging out—having a great time, not really thinking about the future…until this thing with a dugong.
They’re sea mammals, like manatees with a big whale tail. Very shy creatures. Normally they keep their distance. But just two days before I left, I was in the water and one started swimming alongside me for the first time ever. After about forty minutes, just before it departed into deeper water, it dived down to the bottom as if looking at something. I thought maybe a rock or a shell. But no, it was a flare that Mary and I had (very naughtily) shot off from a sailing boat one fun party evening.
So you took this as a sign?
Well, I should have. But not yet. Back in Scotland, I got a dream job at a new fisheries school on the Shetland Island of Scalloway. It had a built-in fish factory and smokehouse, and I was developing courses in processing and smoking Mary and I were corresponding. And she wrote that after I left, the dugong had basically singled her out. She could be in the water with two friends, and the dugong would swim only with her.
One of many, you might say. After Mary finished up with the Peace Corps, she flew over to Shetland and got a lovely job washing salmon bellies for a year. We started to talk about marriage. But for Mary, one thing was clear: ”Only if we move to the States.”
And you were okay with that?
Well, I’d envisioned building a career as a consultant, traveling to fisheries around the world. But I agreed. And on our honeymoon in Acadia I thought okay, no problem. The cliffs may be bigger in Shetland. But the granite, the sea—it all felt so familiar, like everything I’ve always loved.
In Scotland, I’d been doing research on a potential sea urchin fishery. At that time—this was around ’95—Stonington was a sea urchin capital of the world. I got in touch with Pete Collins, a big urchin buyer on the Stonington Town Pier. He invited us to stay with his family while we settled on a place to live. When Mary and I drove over the hill into Stonington, I turned to her and said, “This is it. There’s no point in looking anywhere else.”
Pete hired me and that first winter I stood on the Town Pier buying and grading the urchins the way our Japanese partners had taught me. After a bit, I got together with some wonderful angel investors and started a venture called Stonington Sea Products. This was around 2000, when Mary was pregnant with our first son Brendan. We were building a state-of-the-art fish factory I had a cold smoker sent over from Glasgow. Our main product was smoked salmon, but we also smoked a full line of hot-smoked products like bluefish, salmon, trout, mussels, scallops and Maine shrimp.
Before long, we had orders coming in nationally from chefs and distributors, and all the white tablecloth restaurants from Northwest Harbor to Castine. Along with a mail order enterprise and nice retail shop. But it was stressful, with the buying and smoking and making over forty-five products that were all shipped fresh. And from a marketing perspective in the beginning we were quite naïve: no brand image, no nice packaging. Still, it was growing, going well. Then came 2008: the economic meltdown. Sales dropped; chefs started looking for cheaper options from Chile and other places. But just things were looking bleak, we got an offer from another Englishman, Tim Brown, who owned the Santa Barbara Smokehouse. He had a much bigger operation, about eight times the size of ours—but only smoked salmon. By buying us, he’d get a full line.
So you sold him the company?
I did. And for a while, I stayed on as manager. Then one day Tim came at me with a contract saying that if I ever left the company, I could never do anything with my own recipes—ever, as long as I lived. My own recipes. Can you imagine? I got a lawyer; we rewrote the contract. But that was the end of that. He sacked me.
So you’re out of a job. You no longer have a business… now what?
Luckily, I had never given away access to anything of mine online. I still had stoningtonseafood.com. And, I basically reinvented myself. I realized that cold smoked salmon is too labor intensive and there’s tons of competition. But from my years in Scotland, I recognized this niche market of Finnan Haddie and smoked kippers that no one here was addressing. I started the business in 2010, and I’ve built a customer base of businesses and people who appreciate the care I put into these products. To sell my fish, I’ve never once had to pick up the phone even once.
I’ll bet those early ventures also taught you a lot.
Especially around branding and marketing. Today I package kippers and Finnan Haddie to look like caviar. The look says that this is a premium product. So far, each year has been better than the last.
Even now with the pandemic?
Surprisingly, yes. Actually, it’s been a shift. Big restaurants sales are down. But between wholesale customers—like Parker’s British, Robert Wholey, Great Scot International—and online orders, my business has literally doubled.
Why do you think that is?
For one, we’re all dining in a lot more. We crave the comfort of familiar foods, maybe dishes we grew up with. But we still want that special dining experience we used to have going out. My products fit on both counts.
I see you have one that’s not smoked: salt cold. Can you tell me about that?
Sure. Salt cod, or bacalao as the Portuguese call it, is traditionally cod that’s split, salted, and hung to air dry until it’s as hard as a piece of wood. Mine is different. I use what’s called a green cure. I put fresh Atlantic cod—as good as it comes—into a container with salt to forms what’s called a pickle, which the fish sits in for about twenty days. The pickle draws out the water, leaving the fish fully salted but not fully dried. That is: firm, with real character.
You have to de-salt before using it, right?
Right. I recommend several changes of water over about forty-eight hours. Then you can prepare your brandade, with mashed potatoes, garlic and cream. Or this wonderful Basque dish called Pil-Pil, made with emulsified garlic and olive oil…or any other recipe you like.
It sounds like you love what you do.
I do. It’s demanding. I often work twelve-hour days that start at six in the morning. And with any raw material, I’m deal with variables of heat, humidity, smoke, even the fish itself. Kippers used to be dyed with FK brown, a substance that was found to be a carcinogen. I don’t do anything with dye. I let the smoke develop the color. It’s takes longer and requires more care. But my product is natural—so it’s worth it.
Good question. I suppose I could be hiring salespeople to grow the business. But I’m happy the way things are. I smoke one or two days a week. In summer, I landscape practically full time. I’m highly selective about my gardens. I have twelve on the waterfront—all beautiful and the ultimate Maine experience. I’m fifty-eight, and I like the physical lifestyle. I love the fish as well. But who wants to be stuck in a fish factory all day every day? Sometimes you set your sights on one thing and find yourself in another. Or turn what you’re doing into something else. This is a lifestyle company for a niche market. But does it have growth potential? For sure. And as you might guess, I never say never. We’ll see.
. . .
Cullen Skink is a traditional Scottish smoked haddock recipe. It is a fine Scottish soup of great taste and simplicity. This Cullen Skink recipe was provided by Kris Burrin, the exceptional English chef of The Seasons restaurant in Stonington.
2 medium onions
2 pints full-fat milk
1 bay leaf
1 pound Finnan haddie (smoked haddock)
2 ounces butter
24 ounces potatoes cut into 1-inch cubes
85 milliliter (2.8 ounces) heavy cream
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Peel one of the onions, cut in half and put into a pan with the milk and bay leaf; bring just to the boil, then simmer gently for 5 minutes.
Add the Finnan haddie and simmer for 4 minutes. Lift the fish out onto a plate and pour the liquid into a jug. When the Finnan haddie is cool enough to handle, remove skin, flake into large pieces and set aside.
Peel and finely chop the remaining onion. Melt the butter in a large pan, add the onion and cook over a gentle heat for 5 minutes, until softened but not brown. Add the reserved milk and diced potatoes. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 10 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked but still just firm.
Spoon out about half the potatoes, mash and return to thicken. Add the heavy cream and Finnan haddie chunks, season with a little salt and pepper and warm through for 1–2 minutes. DO NOT BOIL.