I rubbed my stinging eyes and through the smoke, I could see the sun shining on the richly coloured coppery herring drying in the smokehouse. The fish glistened. The fires smoldered on the floor while high above hung poles strung with fish.
Daniel Arseneau is carrying on the tradition of smoking fish from his grandfather and father
and plans to pass it on to the next generation, to ensure that the quality of his family’s skill lives on.
Le Fumoir D’Antan is a smokehouse operating in the original buildings of Antan’s grandfather’s business that started in 1940, on the island of Havre- aux-Maisons in the Magdalen Islands. A museum interprets the practice of smoking fish and if visitors arrive at a time when all fires are not smoking you can stand inside the smokehouse.
The Magdalen Islands or Îles De La Madeleine, are a group of 12 islands in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Canada. The population of 12,000 plus residents live in colourful homes on six islands linked by long and slender sand dunes. The islands are part of the province of Québec and the culture is mainly Acadian and French Canadian, although there is a small English speaking community of those of Scottish and Irish heritage. The islands can be reached by air and sea from Montreal or Prince Edward Island.
The practice of smoking fish has been long practiced in the Magdalen Islands. Meat and fish were smoked by the Mi’Kmaq population of the islands that passed through thousands of years ago. When the islands were settled, there were many smoke houses in operation, as this was a necessary way to preserve food before refrigeration.
Generations of the Arseneau family have been fishing and hard smoking herring.
Daniel’s grandfather once employed 100 islanders and smoked 1 million pounds of fish. His smoked fish helped supply islanders and was imported to the Caribbean. By 1978, the herring population had declined so drastically that all island smokehouses were closed. In 1990, herring stocks recovered and in 1996, the business was revived after the restoration of the smokehouse. Now, 30,000 pounds of fish are smoked each year.
The process of smoking fish has not changed. The fish are caught and stored in salt water for several days before they are skewered whole onto long poles. Several men climb into the rafters of the smokehouse and form a human chain passing up the poles to be hung on the racks. Twenty- four fires are lit on the floor of the smokehouse using only maple and birch wood. The fires must be carefully minded, so the fish are not cooked, only smoked. It takes eight weeks to complete the smoking process.
“These islands have little wood, where did the wood used in fires come from?” observed a fellow tour member.
We learned that the wood for the fires has for many years been imported from Nova Scotia and now Prince Edward Island. And now the salt is imported as well as some of the fish that are smoked, such as salmon, scallops, cod and red fish. The seal population is high in the seas around the Magdalens causing a shortage of fish.
When the fish are dried they are removed from the poles, heads and tales are removed and they are filleted. Only 30% of the fish is used and the rest is used to produce animal feed. It is surprising that in the past, smoked fish remained whole and families could cook three meals from one fish.
Now the fish is eaten as a specialty item, and snack.
The foods of the Magdelens, at times, share the same mixing bowl. The smokehouse smokes the hops for the microbrewery À l’abri de la TEMPĒTE. The herring drips on the malt giving the beer a unique taste that one could only find in the Magdelen Islands.
How times have changed and yet those dedicated to preserving tradition, carry on. Thanks Daniel.
If you go…
To learn more about the Fumoir D’Antan at 27, Ch.du Quai call (418)969-4907