Chesil Smokery, nestled unassumingly in a Bridport trading estate, is typical of the artisan food businesses that seem to thrive in the West Country. It’s a fairly unprepossessing spot but once through the doors and into the shop you hit a cold counter rammed with instantly appetising delicacies, in the kind of cool, quirky packaging, that tells you here is something out of the ordinary.
The brainchild of co-owners Mark Firth, Johnnie Boden and branding company Big Fish, Chesil Smokery took over the defunct premises of 30 year old smokehouse Bridfish 18 months ago, determined from the outset to do things differently. For a start, and unusually for an artisan producer, most of the business – around three quarters – is done online. The website and packaging instantly set the tone for a business which combines old school principles with a modern attitude and is unashamedly high-end.
We're never going to be the cheapest,' says Mark Firth, who also runs a local trout farm and is a lifelong salmon fisherman. 'We use horribly expensive ingredients and treat them with respect.’ Anyway he’s an out and out foodie, opposed to the supermarket’s stack em high sell em cheap philosophy and passionate about locality (the meat on his table comes from 3 farmers in the village, vegetables are grown at home). "I was always fascinated by food and once we’d moved to Dorset I realised it’s actually possible to look the person who produces your food in the eye.' A tour around the Chesil Smokery premises reveals a small, typically artisan business with a hulking smoking kiln at its heart. ‘We didn’t change much,’ says Mark, ‘apart from the odd lick of paint and chucking a serious amount of bleach down the chimney!’ The 35 year old smoker – feisty, temperamental and apparently female – is a case in point. ‘She blows up about twice year and chose 16 December this year when we totally snowed under with Christmas orders. Fortunately we got her working again by the next morning.’
Fish, poultry and meat are cold or hot smoked in an oat, peat and apple based smoke. Ingredients are of the highest quality and the result - I can vouch for cold-smoked salmon, hot-smoked mackerel and duck - is literally sublime; melt in the mouth soft, the absolute anthithesis of anything you're going to find in the supermarket. Salmon is sourced from the Shetlands where the water is icy and the tides strong resulting in fitter, leaner and, most importantly, oil free fish. Trout come from Mark's own farm, free range chicken and duck from a South Devon farm, geese from West Dorset. Mackerel and haddock come from the South West, herrings from Scotland. A word about the mackerel - it's mindblowing. As the packaging says 'smoking is seriously addictive' and Chesil is relying on the fact that once bitten, buyers will be hooked. And it seems to be working - sales have steadily grown much of it through the web, though Chesil also sells through trade fairs and sporting events such as Badminton and Burghley.
The website woos you in with its vivid photography and chummy yet strangely seductive patter which will be familiar to Boden lovers everywhere -' hot smoked mackerel? A lemony mayonnaise? A glass of montagny? Oh, go on then.' You feel like you're in a conversation and this is the stroke of genius. Farmer's markets and food fairs, are all well and good, but you have to get off the sofa and go to them. With Chesil, you have the artisan credentials and the ease of keeping it cyber. Or as Mark puts it: ‘You’re dealing with a boutique producer but without having to have a conversation.' Not that he seems particularly averse to conversation if the lengthy phone call with a customer seeking to appease his mother with a Chesil gift box is anything to go by. The box schemes - regular monthly subscriptions or one off presents - are a great concept, enabling you to try a range of Chesil treats. You can choose from the tasting box for £25 (fish, meat or mixed) up to the mega 'Shindig Box' for £75 (the fishy one includes cold-smoked trout, kippers, hot-smoked mackerel and salmon, gravadlax and extra-smokey cold smoked salmon). There can be few who wouldn't want to see one of these good-looking boxes turning up on their doorstep. Valentine's Day - ditch the predictable red roses? As a thank you present or an apology for wildly errant behaviour, we'd say it's guaranteed a good reception. Enter our competition here to win a 3 month subscription to a Chesil tasting box worth £90