I’ve wanted to meet Jo Hampson ever since I tasted a slice of her smoked chicken. It was so delicious that it has been logged as one of my ‘food memories’, vivid and clear enough so that I can still taste the smoky, unnervingly tender chicken in my mouth. Where did this chicken come from? I remember asking my Dad, from “Smoky Jo” came the reply, his cousin.
The story goes that Jo who was bought up in Sri Lanka, went into the police force and climbed the ranks fast, before deciding to pack it all in, move up to Cumbria and start smoking food. As you do. My intrigue, already piqued by the smoked chicken, was then compounded when that same Christmas my husband was given (completely randomly I will add) an Eco Smoker and Smoky Jo’s very own cookbook.
So, by the time we set a time to talk over Zoom, I’m excited to hear more about her life and sudden career change. I was expecting her to wax lyrical about how much food means to her, or how she had always dreamt of running her own food business, but this wasn’t the case. Despite having owned three (four actually, if you also count the chocolate shop) successful food businesses, Jo assures me that before she and her partner Georgina decided to upheave their London life and successful careers in the force, neither of them had ever smoked anything in their lives. In fact, the closest thing they had come to eating smoked food “was a packet of smoked bacon crisps”. But, surely they were into food, or would go out to eat together at least? I ask, incredulous. Nope, she insists, “we were police officers, supper was kebabs at 3am”.
Kebabs at 3am are what kept Jo going for the 15 years she was a police woman. Having joined in 1986, Jo was the youngest ever officer to be put on the accelerator programme. The programme took her to various departments and roles, including a stint being the specialist custody officer for IRA prisoners, during the early 90’s. At the time, Jo was stationed in Central London, which at the time had 120 people living there who were on a suspected IRA’s hit list. Jo’s job was to check each of these people and their houses three times a day.
On the same tour of duty, four to five bomb calls would be reported. Jo would respond to these calls and, on a daily basis decide whether they were suspect or not, which she did by “picking up the bag and giving it a shake, or kicking she back of the car and hoping for the best”. It seems like madness now, but the alternative was to shut down the street and half of London for eight hours whilst the bomb disposal squad came in. And God forbid if that was done in vain, Jo and her colleagues would get a real bollocking from the powers that be.
Shaking bombs in lieu of shutting down streets must have won her some brownie points because Jo quickly rose through the ranks and won jobs which took her all over the place, including 18 months in New South Wales. But, after being continually pushed and coaxed to go for promotion after promotion, she decided to take the advice she had been giving her subordinates for years, and “escape the force”. The story goes that, whilst having supper after an interview for a job she realised she really didn’t want, Georgina mentioned that an old smokehouse in Penrith had just gone on the market. The following week they had quit their jobs and bought the place.
Despite a seemingly random and un-meditated move to Cumbria to run a smokehouse, the two of them headed north, went on a crash course in smoking food and within 3 years had turned the small business into something that was generating 350% profit and supplying the likes of Fortnum and Mason. But Jo, who admits she has a very short attention span, and is “absolutely crazy”, decided to sell the business. Ten years after that they buy a fish and chip shop in their local village of Shap, embarking on another adventure and following a similar trend: buy up a failing food business that they have absolutely no experience in; do a crash course in how to make the food (this time it was a three day fish-frying course); turn the business into a roaring success (the chippy now repeatedly wins competitions and ranks in the top 10 chip shops across the UK); then sell it on. Talking to her, she makes it sound so easy.
The recipe Jo’s sharing with us comes from her Smoky Jo days – the ten-year period between smokehouse and chippy, when Jo and Georgina ran (another) food business. The idea for this was just as bananas as all her others, but equally successful. About to chuck an old filing cabinet and papers on the bonfire, Jo realised that it would make a brilliant smoker. Salvaging the filing cabinet from a near death, she drilled holes into the drawers, put smoking embers in the bottom drawer and salmon in the top and, hey presto, she had produced some delicious smoked salmon. The filing cabinet, fondly named ‘Freddie’, was the catalyst for running a series of home-smoking courses that she ran from her barn in Cumbria. She reckons that over the ten years, they helped 16 smokehouses get set up all over the world. Still today, people send her photos of home smokers they have made from upcycled bits and bobs.
She still has Freddie, but nowadays mostly uses a Cameron Smoker because it can easily be used on top of a hob – or anywhere really. And, because she’s “absolutely passionate about getting people into smoking”Jo will often whip it out for a dinner party, allowing people to add their own flavourings before popping it in the smoker for ten minutes. A colander, saucepan and tight-fitting lid work just as well as the Cameron, and is what I am using in the recipe below. Jo loves doing this when people come over because it’s always a great ice breaker. People can discus the different flavourings they’ve chosen to add to their salmon and as the host, “you can always tell who’s had the argument in the car on the way over” she says cheekily.
Recipe for Smoked Salmon
Serves – as many as you like!
You will need
- salmon or trout fillets, allow for one fillet per person
- A range of herbs, spices and sauces for people to marinade their fish in. This could be anything, so go wild! But if you are in need of some inspo….soy sauce, ginger, lemon, garlic, chilli, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, maple syrup, marmalade
- Tin foil
- A vegetable steamer
- a SMALL handful of wood dust or very small handful of wood chip
Start by brining your fish. You don’t have to do this, but it will make for a more flavourful fish in the end. Brine your fish by mixing salt with cold water and sir until dissolved. Add the fish fillets into the brining liquid and leave for about 10 minutes.
Prepare the ‘smoker’ by putting a layer of foil in the base of your saucepan. You will need enough foil for it to come up over the sides of the pan slightly, so that when you put the steamer is placed on top it fits very snugly. Make sure you also have a tightly fitting lid for your steamer, as keeping the smoke inside during the process is essential.
Remove your fish from the brining liquid and rinse in cold water then pat dry.
Now for the fun part: take your fish and add absolutely anything you want to it. Go wild! Get whoever you are with to do the same to their piece of fish too. Leave the fish to marinade for a little while – 30 mins is fine.
Put a small handful of wood dust on top of the foil at the bottom of the saucepan. Put it on the heat and, as soon as the wood starts to smoke, place the steamer or colander with your food in it into the pan and cover with an airtight lide (seal with foil if necessary)
Let the fish smoke gently for 10 – 15 minutes.
If you have multiple pieces of fish, you may need to replace the wood chip/dust a couple of times as it will quite quickly burn down and you do not want to smoke your fish with the black charred bits of wood because it will taste gross. But remember, when you add the wood dust, you only need a small handful, don’t go crazy with it.
Once all pieces are cooked remove from the smoker. Serve with vegetables, salads, rice, mixed grains, whatever you like!