Smoke master delights with finnan haddie

In a state known for its lobster, Richard Penfold has a different idea of gourmet seafood. At his Deer Isle enterprise, the Englishman has found success with finnan haddie — smoked haddock traditional to Scotland and New England, which he sells locally and across the United States.

While finnan haddie may sound strange to American ears, the smoked fish has been popular in Britain for over a century, Penfold said, and in Scotland for even longer. It’s the key ingredient in cullen skink, a Scottish soup, and kedgeree, a rice dish using Indian spices that Penfold and his family enjoy every Christmas morning.

“It’s often a family tradition, especially around holidays,” said Penfold, who runs Stonington Seafood. “And then it’s been passed on generation to generation. So every next generation tends to look for it, seek it out, and remember it fondly because their grandparents made it, or their parents made it.”

While the finnan haddie ritual runs in certain circles, Penfold is also looking for converts. This summer, he began selling the fish to Stonington Ice Cream Company, where smoked haddock sandwiches are on the menu alongside several classic Maine dishes.

“It’s become our best seller after lobster rolls,” said Ron Watson, who owns the shop.

At Deer Isle’s Pickering Cove, Richard Penfold produces traditionally smoked haddock — known as finnan haddie — at Stonington Seafood. The fish is line-caught in either Iceland or Norway.

For Penfold, selling at a lobster shack is the next chapter in his American crossover. Growing up in England, he had dreamed of being a fish farmer from a young age. He got his start with smoked fish while working in the Shetland Islands northeast of Scotland, then met his wife, Mary — a native of Utica, N.Y. — on the remote Pacific island of Vanuatu. He was working as a fisheries extension officer; she was in the Peace Corps.

The pair honeymooned in Acadia, and Penfold was impressed. “I said, ‘You know what, I could live here,” he laughed.

He moved to the area in 1997, working briefly in sea urchin exports before opening Stonington Sea Products. He sold that company — for which cold-smoked salmon had been the most important product — to a California-based firm in 2010, and saw an opportunity to head a different direction.

“What I realized is that finnan haddie and kippers were this lovely little niche market that weren’t being met,” he said.

That same year, he started the Stonington Seafood website and began taking mail orders. He has since begun to sell wholesale to restaurants and other retailers, and his repertoire now includes cod, scallops and mackerel in addition to haddock and kippers.

Smoked cod is its own niche market among Irish and Scandinavian crowds, Penfold said, but he still considers these other products add-ons, with finnan haddie remaining the specialty. He uses haddock that is line-caught in either Iceland or Norway.

“For finnan haddie to be good, you have to be able to get thick haddock,” he said. “They have to be big fillets. And domestic haddock is generally not big.”

Haddock caught in the waters off of Maine or Canada is usually smaller due to persistent overfishing in the region, Penfold explained. When he receives the haddock, it’s in the form of a skin-on fillet. He first soaks the fish in a saltwater brine, then smokes it in an old kiln. It’s a cold-smoking process, so the white hickory smoke is wafted through the fish without heating or cooking it.

“It’s like fish alchemy. It totally changes the flavor and everything,” he said.

Penfold uses a brass brinometer, an antique instrument, to achieve the correct, consistent salt level in the brine. The device came from Aberdeen Fish Curers and Merchants in Scotland.

The haddock is then vacuum-packed in sealed bags and frozen. Penfold doesn’t have his own retail shop, but sells locally at places like Tradewinds Marketplace in Blue Hill and Coldwater Seafood in Stonington in addition to restaurants and the mail-order business.

Eight years in, Penfold hopes to continue to expand the business. He currently works full-time as a landscaper, only smoking fish four or five days per month. He sees plenty of room for growth, particularly with the early success at Stonington Ice Cream Company.

“It’s very scalable. There’s lots of lobster shacks up and down the coast,” he said.

Stonington Seafood products can be found at https://www.stoningtonseafood.com/. Tel: 348-2730.