A Gloucester Take on Cullen Skink

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A Gloucester Take on Cullen Skink

ModifyNote from or: A big thank you to my friends from Double light smokehouse in Gloucester, MA for providing the Finnan Haddie for this Cullen Skink. Another big thank you to my new friends at Moonlight Cracker Company for providing their amazing oyster crackers.

Haddock soup holds a special place in the centuries-old fishing port I call home. It doesn’t matter if your family is old Yankees, from Nova Scotia, Portugal, Sicily, Scandinavia or elsewhere. Many of us prefer a good haddock chowder to the more familiar New England clam chowder.

Historically, haddock season coincided with winter, when vegetables other than potatoes and onions were scarce. Of course, you could simply replace the haddock with cod or whatever you’re catching at the time. The soup is certainly traditional, but it has also evolved over the times to include different ingredients.

Few people know that soups were once dairy-free and made up of layers of ingredients. It was potatoes and “hard bread” or crackers that thickened the soup instead of milk or cream. Ship’s biscuit, hard tack, pilot bread are all names for very hard products such as crackers. They were originally used as non-perishable supplies at sea. These crackers were usually too difficult to eat without breaking them and soaking them in a liquid such as coffee or in stews. There are centuries-old examples of this stuff in museums that are still edible, in the strictest sense of the word.

Modern oyster crackers descend from these various types of “hard bread” and still retain some of their characteristics. They’ll hold up for a while in a bowl of chowder or Cincinnati chili, but they’re not cooked enough to use in this traditional way.

moonshine oyster crackersmoonshine oyster crackers

Enter Moonlight Cracker Company, based in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Buying Seafood team met these nice people at SENA 2023 in Boston and they amazed us with their incredible product. They make the best oyster crackers I’ve ever had. Harder and crunchier than those little packets you get with soup, but softer than the traditional board biscuit. They also taste great and make a crunchy snack on their own. It was a no-brainer to order a package while I was planning this post. If I ever work up the courage to make an old school soup without dairy, these are the crackers I’ll use.

Finnan Haddie of Twin Light Smokehouse

Twin Light Finna's sonTwin Light Finna's son

I recently posted about Twin Light Smokehouse in Gloucester and really enjoyed their products. Their Finnan Haddie is an artisanal fillet of cold-smoked and cured local haddock using honest, no-shortcut ingredients like soy. If you are familiar with smoked haddock, you may notice that it is not a bright golden yellow. Smoked haddock was often dyed to give it a shade closer to the original peat-smoked Finnan Haddie. They also did it to cod, to pass it off as real. Some smokers still dye smoked fish, but this adds no flavor. Twin Light is among the smokers that have opted for a more natural approach and I appreciate it.

What is Cullen Skink?

Gloucester’s close ties to Nova Scotia include many recipes originally brought over from Scotland, Ireland, France and Germany. Within my genealogy I have a Scottish line through my grandmother’s Nova Scotian heritage (her maiden name is MacDonald). The finnan haddie tradition has become a New England favorite, so it baffles me that we didn’t grow up with the most Scottish soup: Cullen skink.

This hearty soup originates from the small fishing village of Cullen on the east coast of Scotland. Haddock is Scotland’s favorite fish and Cullen skink uses local smoked haddock. This was traditionally smoked with peat and green wood. The origin story has something to do with a beef stew, skink being a Scottish word for shank/shank of beef. Scottish thrift may be a stereotype, but in a fishing town, with lots of smoked haddock, it makes sense to save the cows and use the milk.

I like to be inspired by recipes and then follow my instinct. When it came to making a Cullen Skink I started from the source: Cullen, Scotland. I looked at local menus as most restaurants and hotels serve a version of their most famous soup. Cullen restaurants keep it simple: smoked haddock, potatoes (tatties), onion, milk or cream and a little chopped parsley.

There is also an annual Cullen Skink World Championship held in Cullen and open to all. Based on their strict ingredient rules, what I plan to make might qualify for the “Traditional” contest. The organizers also have a “with a twist” competition in which it is possible to embellish the traditional recipe with other ingredients. I think I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s see how it ends first.

Gloucester "Skink" - Smoked haddock soupGloucester "Skink" - Smoked haddock soup

Gloucester “Skink” – Smoked haddock soup

Recipe buying seafoodCourse: Fish recipes, soupsKitchen: Scottish, SeafoodDifficulty: Easy

This version uses cold-smoked haddie Finnan, which must be poached before using. Hot-smoked haddock or other whitefish is already fully cooked.

ingredients

  • 1/2 pound Finnan Haddie or smoked haddock
    cullen skink ingredientscullen skink ingredients

  • 6-8 Yellow Potatoes, peeled and cut into coarse cubes

  • 1 stalk of diced celery.

  • 1 Leek (white only) chopped.

  • 2 cups whole milk

  • 1/2 cup light cream

  • Bar Harbor Clam Juice 16 oz

  • 2 tbsp. Butter

  • Chopped parsley and dill.

  • Optional: moonshine oyster crackers
    moonshine oyster crackersmoonshine oyster crackers

Notes

  • You can easily change the ratio of potatoes to smoked haddock depending on how smoky or thick you want it to be.
  • I was going to just use milk but needed more liquid to cook the potatoes. If this happens to you, I suggest a fish broth or bottled clam juice like I did.

The verdict on “Gloucester Skink”

Cullen Skink, no oyster crackersCullen Skink, no oyster crackers

I should have done this years ago. A creamy, thick haddock soup with that delicious smoky flavour. The Gloucester skink was also really simple to prepare as a main dish. I’ve watched videos of Cullen’s World Championships and most use a two-pot approach. My recipe is definitely not the traditional version, but I have to admit that it was closer to the original than some versions I’ve seen prepared.

The smoked haddock soup was hot and satisfying on its own. But dare I say the Strong piece they were the incredible oyster crackers from Moonlight Cracker. I mashed some into the soup like they were ship’s biscuits and they added another dimension to this delicious soup. These oyster crackers don’t get soggy, they hold up and stay crunchy until the last bite. Twin Light Finnan Haddie and Moonlight Oyster Crackers are a perfect match. Who would have thought I would find the best oyster crackers for New England/Scottish chowder just a short drive from the Chesapeake Bay!

You have to make this soup! Twin Light Smokehouse products are available through Fresh catch from Cape Ann and at Whole Foods. Moonshine crackers is on Facebook and also has an online store, so you already have a head start on some savory, smoked treats. Coming in from the cold to grab a steaming bowl of Cullen… or should I say Gloucester Skink, it’s just a little slice of heaven waiting for you.

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