Image (C) C Brown. Not to be used without consent
There is archaeological evidence that this preservation method of curing ling has been going on at least since 900AD on Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles. The large well-built boats allowed them to catch great quantities from the deep waters off the Scottish coast. They needed to be salted in layers to preserve them until they landed. Back on shore the ling was dried until it was quite hard. This is not to be confused with stockfish – dried salt-cured Ling needed to be salted out at sea, then hung up to dry on these northern isles. This became an important export product in its own right.
Ling lives between 100M – 1,000M deep in cold waters, mainly around Iceland and the British Isles, most weighing 20-30kg. Due to the deep water, fishermen needed to stay out for weeks hence why it was salted on the boats. This not only preserved the catch but also acted as a defence against hungry seabirds who would have taken the fish!
Who values the importance of a culinary tradition that has been part of the domestic food culture of an area for generations are those working as professionals in the food industry who believe that such historic ingredients, with a Scottish provenance, should be used imaginatively as an integrated feature of present day food culture. Even though the cure remained popular in the Scottish diet well into the first half of the 20th century, it has seen a decline since then. In the areas where it was traditionally produced, and became a staple part of the diet, it has survived: the curing method handed down from one generation to the next. It is a slightly acquired taste to those not used to it and a delicacy for those who are. If the method of curing is not passed on from one generation to the next there is a danger that it would become extinct. The species is not vulnerable but in recent years deep sea trawling has been used so it is important that the ling used is caught sustainably by hook and not by trawling.
It is less easy to find in retail outlets in areas that do not have strong taste-memories of the dishes made with salted and dried ling. Producers are mostly confined to the islands in the North and West and at a few ports on the mainland where there are landings of ling.
The method still used today by small producers for Salted & Dry Cured Ling is to de- head, gut, split the fish open and lay flat. Often they are filleted but the skin is left on. It is laid in coarse salt for one week then it would have been pinned out with wooden sticks, hung and dried till hard, but nowadays kilns are used and they dry there for about one week. If stored in a cool dry place it can be kept for many years.
Some Culinary Uses: Reconstitute fish by covering with cold water and soaking for 12-24 hours. Drain and cover the fish with water. Bring to the boil. Cover and leave to cool. Flake the fish, removing any bones.
It was a valued and popular fish with a piquant character, making it a lively partner to bland, floury potatoes. It is a strong seasoning ingredient providing a salty element, combined with other mature fishy flavours. It is delicious most commonly mixed with floury potatoes in the dish Hairy Tatties (Shetland spelling, Taaties)
Hairy Tatties (Scottish): Boil potatoes, skin and mash. Add milk and butter. Beat with a whisk or beater till light and creamy. Add the reconstituted cooked salt fish and beat till ‘hairy’. Serve with hot toast and a soft boiled or lightly poached egg placed in a hollow in the hairy tatties.