This was a project we'd had on the back burner, so to speak, for months. Then we went on a smoking and curing course with Norfolk's Marsh Pig Salami (more on that next week) and came home with lots of tasty things we'd made, including two slabs of home cured bacon which we wanted to smoke.
We'd had a nearly-built cold smoker in the shed for months but now we had a deadline. It had to be completed by the time the bacon had finished curing. Cue a lot of banging and sawing from Him Outdoors as he put the finishing touches to what is a magnificently Heath Robinson contraption. But Reader, it works.
We had a leaky old rainwater barrel we wanted to re-purpose and we cobbled the rest together from bits and pieces we scavenged and scrounged. The only things we bought were a cheap metal dustbin, a chimney collar and some jubilee clips. The whole thing cost us (not counting the original cost of the barrel) about £40.
If you're building one at home, the received wisdom is that you need a smoke chamber, a smoke generator and a pipe which conducts the smoke between the two, cooling it en route. Cold smoking, of course, is different to hot smoking in that it only flavours the produce, it doesn't cook it.
Now you can cold smoke in anything from a brick-built shed with a pile of sawdust on the floor, to a purpose-built machine costing thousands of pounds, or simply in an enclosed barbecue. You can even smoke in a cardboard box. Yes, really. Check out the eco smoker on the useful Hot Smoked website. I've heard of cold smokers being built from anything from old filing cabinets to decommissioned fridges. Jackie at Marsh Pig Salami uses a metal coal bunker which she says is deep enough not to need a cooling pipe.
But we built ours the traditional way and it does help to be a fairly competent handyman/woman. Him Outdoors removed the top of the rainwater barrel and adapted it to create a removable lid, which included a smoke vent. We got lucky because a friend donated a fancy steel chimney top when he rebuilt his kitchen.
The next job was to insert rods from which to either hang the produce we wanted to smoke or to support racks where necessary. Normally you'd drill holes in the sides of the barrel and just slot them in but our barrel is a bit wibbly so Him Outdoors made wooden brackets for them to sit in.
Then he cut a hole in the side of the barrel near the bottom for the cooling pipe, which is a bit of chimney liner we had knocking about. It's joined to the barrel by a strange and elusive bit of kit which is actually a roofing collar for a chimney flu - ask at your local hardware store. It cost about £12.
The other end of the pipe fits over the smoke generator, which is simply a metal dustbin with an incinerator lid. Him Outdoors cut a slot near the bottom of the bin and bolted on an adjustable vent to control air flow.
Inside the bin he fashioned a wire mesh column, about 15 cm in diameter and 60 cm high, to hold the sawdust. This was a useful tip from Curing and Smoking by Steven Lamb of River Cottage fame.
It means we can fill it up, light it, and it will smoke away happily with no further help from us for eight or nine hours.
The sawdust came from a friend who makes oak windows. You can use different types of hardwood but if you get it from a joiner as we did, make sure it doesn't include pine, which contains toxic resins.
It's also advisable not to use firelighters to light the sawdust as, or so I hear, you'll never get rid of the flavour. We used an electric poker.
Our smoker looks worrying like a moonshine still (I expect a visit from the police any day now) but it works brilliantly. We smoked our bacon for eight hours then left it in the fridge for a couple of days to allow the smoky flavour to even out through the meat. It is delicious. I may have cut it a little too thickly but this is one of the best bacon butties I've eaten in ages.
Now we've got the hang of the basics we're planning more ambitious smoking and curing projects. Watch this space. And if you'd like more technical detail on how we built our smoker, just drop me a line. Him Outdoors will be happy to oblige. :)