Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, but there might not always be heat — at least not in the backroom of Sullivan Harbor Farm, which follows a specialized method to make cold-smoked salmon. The delicacy sells both here in Maine and across the country.
Located on Route 1 in Hancock village, 10 miles east of Ellsworth, the shop recently put cold smoked salmon back on its menu this summer after completing its relicensing. In 2016, it was forced to halt production under its former owner after receiving safety violation citations by the Food and Drug Administration.
In the wave-patterned shingle building, owner Leslie Harlow and crew use age-old practices to cure and smoke the fish.
“Smoked foods go back thousands of years; we didn’t invent it,” she quipped.
Still, Harlow has refined the process down to a science, beginning with relatively local fish. The Atlantic salmon are pen-raised by an aquaculture company in New Brunswick, Canada.
“The reason that we choose New Brunswick is because the fish are coming from the Bay of Fundy, and those are the biggest tides in the world,” the smokehouse proprietor explained. “The farm that we use has what’s called low stocking densities, so the fish aren’t all jammed up next to each other, and they kind of free flow in this circular motion. So when the tides are going in, and the tides are going out, they actually become really athletic.”
Sullivan Harbor Farm receives salmon shipments at least once a week. To ensure freshness, the transport time between New Brunswick and Hancock is typically limited to about four hours, according to Harlow.
In the production area, visible through a glass window behind the counter of the retail shop, incoming salmon are cured with sea salt and brown sugar for roughly seven hours. Then, each fillet is rinsed with water to remove excess salt and placed a refrigerated room.
After the fillets have cooled, they are smoked in “old world kilns.” A smudge fire on one end of each kiln burns cherry and hickory wood, and a fan pulls smoke through the racks of fish, injecting the flavor that gives the seafood product its name.
The term cold smoked means that the temperature of the fish never exceeds 90 degrees; the fillets remain raw, like sushi. Hot smoked salmon, which Sullivan Harbor Farm has produced in the past but does not currently make, occurs when temperatures exceed 140 degrees F, and the fish cooks.
Cold-smoked salmon are in the kiln for seven or eight hours, until the fish oils crust at the surface, giving the fillet a rich coral color and signaling that it is ready. After being removed from the kiln, the fillets are sliced in a special machine and vacuum packed into plastic bags for distribution.
While some of the salmon then goes on sale in the retail shop, much of it goes elsewhere — to distributors, specialty stores and restaurants across the country, as well as individual homes.
“Another really big thing for us is our consumer-level mail-order business,” Harlow said. “So if you want to order a side of salmon for your dad for Christmas or whatever, you call us up or send us an email, go online and order, and we ship it out.”
The online business model allows Sullivan Harbor Farm to avoid some of the seasonal pitfalls that plague Downeast Maine’s hospitality industry.
“I think that we do have issues here with year-round economic development,” Harlow said. “It’s a real big problem. And I’m doing my contribution by being around and employing people. Next year we’ll have five people here year-round.”
Beyond its specialty salmon, Sullivan Harbor Farm distinguishes itself through its unique array of Maine products, ranging from blueberry pies to specialized ales. Its retail shop also sells fine art posters and note cards featuring Maine artists’ paintings.
“I’m really into Maine,” Harlow laughed. She was born Bangor and summered in Maine as a child. After a year of college, she moved up to Bar Harbor for the summer, and she has made her home in the area since.
Although the other Maine products have helped keep the enterprise alive in recent years, Harlow is excited to be selling salmon once more.
“Smoked salmon, it’s filled with Omega-3s. I’m looking forward to eating it again,” she said.
Sullivan Harbor Farm Smokehouse is located at 1545 US-1 in Hancock. Tel: 422-2209. For hours, see the smokehouse’s Facebook page.