Turning silver into gold

As the Hastings Herring Fair approaches, Sonny Elliott goes into overdrive, smoking locally caught “silver darlings” by the hundredweight. Louise Bell watches a master at work.

Sonny with his buckling – and his signature hot-smoked salmon in the background.

Rock-a-Nore Fisheries is well known in Hastings for its top-notch wet fish. Much of it is landed just over the road on the fishing beach known as the Stade, where local fishermen have been launching their small boats direct from the shingle since before William the Conqueror arrived – he landed just along the coast from here and there’s a flat rock on the seafront where, as legend has it, he ate his breakfast.

But the other thing that sets this family-run outfit apart is its on-site smokery. “We’re the only fishmongers to have one,” says Hastings born-and-bred proprietor Sonny Elliott. “Our old brick smoker was one of the first things my dad put in here when he took over the place in 1978.”

Kippers being cold smoked after being dried in the sun “until they feel right”.

Sonny’s dad was tapping into a strong tradition. Sonny recalls that domestic smokers were commonplace in the Old Town during his childhood, with people selling their wares through their front-room windows. “When we moved from a flat into a small house in the Old Town my mum was thrilled at the prospect of having her own garden,” he says. “But my dad paved it over and put two boilers out there for whelks and crabs, and of course a smoker.”

These days, the old brick smoker has been replaced with two hulking stainless steel machines, each capable of smoking 10 stone of fish at a time. Depending on the season, Sonny will smoke haddock, cod, mackerel – the local fillet I tasted this summer, still warm from the smoker, melted like savoury butter on the tongue – prawns, conger eel and even cheese.

His bestseller by far, though, is his hot-smoked salmon, invented by accident when the sawdust caught fire in the smoker, just before Christmas several years ago. “We had 56 sides in there,” says Sonny. “It was a bit of a disaster – although we were lucky the whole place didn’t burn down. We ended up giving it away to people – and they absolutely loved it. Now its one of the things we’re best known for. We sell loads of it.”

The gold standard: Sonny’s award-winning buckling, hot smoked and ready to eat.

This week, though, the focus is very much on herring, caught in Hastings’ MSC-certified herring fishery (local mackerel and Dover sole get the MSC seal of approval too). That’s because it’s Hastings’ fourth Herring Fair this weekend (31 October and 1 November). Sonny, his wife Jackie and colleague Gail have been busy processing and smoking some 100kg of herring, turning them into kippers, buckling and bloaters – the last of which won Sonny the top prize at the Billingsgate Sustainable Seafood Awards in 2012. (See the video for an explanation of these variations.)

This year Rockanore will have a double stand on Hastings’ Stade, with Sonny’s smoked fish on one side and chef Joey Antonowicz-Behnan on the other. Joey, currently working at Soho’s Quo Vadis, will be returning to his native Hastings for the weekend to cook up a selection of dishes using Sonny’s fresh and cured fish, including his take on the classic herrings in oatmeal and an intensely tasty bloater paste. “I love the Herring Fair,” says Sonny. “It’s great that it puts the spotlight on a local product – and one that’s sustainable too.”

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