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Smoky flavours permeate foods and drinks

David Wykes smokes all sorts of ingredients for fuller flavours

Fish, cheese and meats have long been cured using smoke. But now professionals and amateurs alike are smoking pretty much anything that can be consumed.

Smoked salmon, mackerel and smoked cured meats are commonplace in mainstream shops, but the ranks of smoked foods and drinks available are suddenly expanding.

Cheese, fruits, nuts, chocolate, vanilla pods, alcohol, water and even rice are now being smoked by aficionados looking for deeper flavours.

But how to avoid food and drinks that taste a bit too "charcoal barbecue" rather than subtly aromatic?

Full of flavour:

Smoked mackerel pate

Keep it simple with a smoked mackerel pate

Serve up smoked garlic soup with parsley pesto

Pep up pasta with smoked paprika

Hot smoke teriyaki duck with pak choi

David Wykes, the chef-owner of Verveine restaurant in Milford on Sea, Hampshire, is known for his deconstructed cuisine using different smoking techniques on seasonal ingredients.

He does a lot of smoking with a cold smoker "to control the flavour a lot more", as he says hot smoking can taste "a little bit too much like a barbecue".

He also uses a "smoking gun" to infuse a dish under glass.

"We smoke things with dried elder flowers, berries, cigars, to give a different level of finish," he explains.

He is a fan of smoking anything from vanilla pods, fish, flour for bread, vegetables, lobster shells for bisques through to langoustine shells to make oils, as it "imparts a noticeable flavour".

An ancient technique, smoking to preserve foods is popular in many parts of the world. As early as 3500 BC the Sumerian civilisation of Mesopotamia was smoking fish, and in the T'ang dynasty (AD 618-907) black smoked apricots were a delicacy, according to the Oxford Companion to Food.

Through the haze:

Hot smoking: Cooking using smoke and heat at 80-120C. Foods are fully cooked, fully of flavour and moist, and don't need to be cooked again

Cold smoking: A drying process at around 25C, that doesn't actually cook the food, rather gives it a delicate flavour. Foods may need to be cooked afterwards

Tea-smoking: Chinese style of heating up loose tea leaves with rice over a grill to flavour food

The Romans smoked cheese, and the Italian cheese caciocavallo, originally tied up in pairs, hung and smoked, is thought to be of very ancient origin and descended from these.

While strips of meat were dried and smoked since prehistoric times to make beef jerky or biltong, smoking ham and meats became popular in medieval Europe, and is a tradition still carried on today, as seen in cured meats like chorizo and prosciutto.

Smoking fish in Europe can be traced back to 2000BC - a fish drying and smoking station from this time was uncovered near the River Bann in Ireland.

"Kippered" salmon is mentioned in the household book of King James V, in 1542, a method first recorded in 1479 to cure or smoke "spent" fish which had spawned and were past their best.

Smoked salmon is the most well-known of smoked foods, with a Scottish cure developed to preserve the fish or "kipper it" in smokehouses. Different commercial smokehouses added their own ingredients such as juniper berries, whisky and molasses, and closely guarded their exact recipes.

A much milder London cure for smoked salmon was developed by Eastern European immigrants in London in the late 19th Century as a way of enhancing flavour, rather than preserving.

Meat being smoked Cooking meat "low and slow" for a smoky barbecue flavour is a simple way to go

While much smoking of fish on a large scale is now done by a computerised system, some are returning to the smokehouses of old, like chef-producer James Robb.

After 22 years in Edinburgh, he moved to the small fishing village of St Monans, Fife to start up the East Pier Smokehouse and cafe, taking over an old smokehouse.

"Traditionally it will be a generational thing and they just did smoked salmon and haddock," he explains. "But we are preserving small-scale and smoking techniques in the older kilns that were abandoned and left behind."

James Robb loves to experiment in the smokehouse.

Up in smoke:

Arbroath smokies

Barney Peterkin works at the Valley Smokehouse in the Chew valley outside Bristol. They supply Raymond Blanc's restaurant, The Manoir aux Quat'Saisons as well as many other restaurants. He talked me through the process at their smokehouse.

"Smoking's not done for preserving anymore, it's done for taste. Modern refrigeration means you're not hanging the product up for the winter - people now would find smoked fish from years ago very unpalatable, a lot smokier and a lot saltier. It was rough peasant food, and now it's a luxury food."

Arbroath smokies are so carefully produced by Scottish smokehouses they have been given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the European Commission.

Read more: What makes smoked fish so irresistible?

"We do rice, nuts, salts, paprika, langoustines from the local fishing village, cheese (French brie, a goats' cheese and a local cheddar) - the rice has a subtle smoke on it, we serve it in a fish curry in the cafe."

It's not just savoury foods that can be enhanced by smoke, he says. Smoked chocolate is a great seller for the artisan producer.

"We smoked it just to see if it would work or not - we use a 70% cocoa solids chocolate, you need a lot of oil in it for it to work.

"It works with chocolate-dipped strawberries, and is very good with whisky - it is a kind of 'marmite' thing, people are raving about it," he says.

For those adventurous types, you can buy equipment like an outdoor smoker, a smoking gun, or you can use a barbecue, an oven or even a stove-top with the right know-how.

Slow cooked smoky meat done in a style known as "low and slow" has become incredibly popular in Britain, which has adopted the technique made popular in the Southern parts of the US.

The connective tissues between the meat tenderise and it becomes deliciously soft and smoky to eat.

Whether smoking things hot or cold, the wood or ingredients added to the wood are what gives each and every ingredient its finish.

James Robb says "beech goes really well with salmon", and mostly they use it along with oak and hardwoods, "but for venison, spruce", and softwoods are horrible with fish.

Innovation is also coming in liquid form.

Do it yourself:

Home smoker

Is hot smoking at home worth the trouble?

Halen Mon Anglesey Sea Salt, from north Wales, creates smoked salts but has recently added an oak-smoked water to its range, now being sold in luxury store Harvey Nichols.

Alison Lea-Wilson from Halen Mon says it is a naturally smoked product, and delivers a powerful smoky taste and aroma, "almost like dashi" (a Japanese savoury-flavoured stock), which gives recipes "a savoury edge", and can be used in stocks, soups, rice and pulse dishes.

"We were asked to do it by Heston Blumenthal," she says. "It tastes so much of smoke."

"If you use it undiluted, it makes very strong marinades, sauces, and mashed potato.

"(But) if you use it in diluted quantities you can add it to cocktails and drinks.

"The most interest is from mixologists - those making vodka-based cocktails with bacon in - or you can also freeze it and add it in to cocktails or whiskies as ice cubes," she explains.

David Wykes also likes to create new drinking experiences using smoking techniques - such as smoking vanilla pods to make straws from which to drink cocktails, or smoking seaweed-infused martinis.

So whatever the food or drink, these days how smoky you want to go is entirely up to you.

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