Ruairidh Morrison is passionate about producing smoke-roasted organic fish in small batches with rich flavours and texture. And it’s a dedication which is earning the Scotsman rave reviews from some of the most discerning foodies, particularly in the Causeway Coast and Glens area he now calls his home.
Ruairidh runs the artisan North Coast Smokehouse with wife Melanie near their home in Ballycastle. The smokehouse is now also part of the Economusee international network of artisan workshops which are open to the public and especially popular with visitors to the region.
He currently smoke roasts organic salmon, mostly sourced from Glenarm Organic Salmon Company in Glenarm, as well as Lough Neagh pollan and trout from Clough in Co Antrim. In addition to fish, Ruairidh produces sea salt, black pepper and dried dulse from his small smoker. These are supplied to hotels, guesthouses and chefs throughout the Causeway and Glens. He is currently developing smoked sugar, a novel product aimed especially at the artisan confectionery sector.
Ruairidh explains he’s building on a rich heritage of smoking fish, especially salmon, in the Causeway region that stretches back 10,000 years.
The enterprising couple settled in Ballycastle, Melanie’s home town, in 2009 and set up the smokehouse three years later. “Running my own salmon curing business had long been an aspiration of mine,” he says. “My background is in salmon farming. I grew up on the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides and worked in salmon farming for many years before moving to New Zealand to management roles.
“It’s an industry in which I’ve now been involved for around 30 years and have built up a vast amount of knowledge and experience. Farmed salmon, of course, is now Scotland’s biggest export industry and has become an important generator of overseas sales in New Zealand.
“Islay, furthermore, has very close links with Co Antrim that date back to the days of St Columba. I was comfortable settling down in Ballycastle because of the historic and other links with the Hebrides and the existence of the successful Glenarm farmed salmon, a small and hugely successful business focused on premium quality salmon for export. I now buy whole salmon from Glenarm for curing and smoke-roasting. This commitment is in line with my own focus on producing exceptionally tasty smoked salmon.”
While his main salmon source is Glenarm, Ruairidh is also quick to acknowledge the advice and support he’s received from Ewing’s Seafoods in Belfast, among the most successful smokers of salmon and other seafood in Northern Ireland.
“We produce organic smoked salmon in small batches to ensure consistent quality in both taste and texture. It’s essentially handcrafted using my own curing recipe and hot smoking technique in our own small kiln in which we burn beech wood for a distinctive aroma and flavour. Each batch is individually and lovingly monitored by us. I also clean the fish and send the waste to Rathlin where it is used in the local lobster industry.
“Our smoke is produced the old fashioned way, by simply burning small quantities of wood. We don’t use liquid-smokes, paints or dyes. Our wonderful flavours and colours are natural and come from just the right combination of cure, smokiness, temperature, time and fresh sea air,” he says. “We love the art involved in smoking food to the point where we think it is at its most delicious - an art learned in New Zealand where the tradition of smoking food is still very much alive today.”
The couple combine innovation in food with a desire for sustainable living. Ruairidh also worked for many years in fish health in New Zealand animal health laboratories and then in the science team for Biosecurity New Zealand. Melanie holds a Master of Laws in environmental law and sustainable development.
He began testing reaction to the salmon at farmers’ markets around the north coast and was encouraged by very enthusiastic feedback. Sales have now been achieved from high-end restaurants, hotels and guesthouses. The artisan business in also part of the Taste Causeway promotion initiative by Causeway and Glens Council. “Taste Causeway is extremely supportive and a great initiative with enormous potential.”
In addition to the hot-smoked salmon, he has developed other smoked products such as sea salt, black pepper and dried dulse flakes, the latter being used as a highly innovative condiment. “I decided to start smoking dulse seaweed because it is plentiful around the coasts of Northern Ireland and is now widely recognised as being a very nutritious food and a very rich source of minerals and vitamins. Our aim is to combine our skills, knowledge and values to develop a successful artisan business, and our lives, along a sustainable, environmentally-friendly path,” Ruairidh adds.