Smoke without fire: OX talks to Turan T. Turan
"I could pluck and gut a pheasant by the time I was 10"
“I spent the last 15 years riding to fires in my own BMW with a Kojak blue light on - excellent!”
From putting out fires in a professional capacity, to lighting them in a culinary setting, Turan T. Turan has led a fascinating and diverse career path. Based in Milton Keynes, Turan is the founder of an artisan cookery school, specialising in curing meats and smoking fish. I’ve been fascinated with the millennia-old practice of coldsmoking for years, so when an opportunity came up to speak to a true master of the art, I couldn’t wait to talk about the subtle adaptations of setup and practice that can produce some of the finest and most revered delicacies available to the modern carnivore or piscivore. But first, the most obvious question – how does a man go from being a firefighter to running a smoking business?
“Funny, isn’t it?” Turan laughs. “I've always had an interest in food, and my dad has been in the food industry since I was a kid, but I never really followed him into the business other than when he needed me to do a big clean in the kitchen! When I went to work I actually ended up going into engineering. I studied at college and got qualified in 1981, and then went 'on the tools', and worked as a professional electrician, doing commercial and industrial work. Then, in 1984, I joined the fire brigade. I progressed through the ranks and left as a station commander, having been a temporary borough commander for some time in North London, so I had a fantastic career and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
So where does the interest in food come from? Turan speaks with a clear passion about his products and his practice – I ask if his father’s background played a part.
“As kids, if your dad is in that kind of industry, you tend to eat quite well: you see quite a broad spectrum of different foods, and that's quite a nice thing as a kid. Looking back, we used to get bored of it because we'd get forerib of steak almost on a weekly basis, and we used to love it when we were invited over to friends' houses to have beans on toast. We thought it was delightful! When they'd come to our house for tea, it was funny because they'd be given something like cordon bleu and just think ‘what the fuck is this?’”.
Turan’s infectious enthusiasm is typical of a successful artisan – as is his early exposure to the industry in which he now excels.
“We were eating avocados in the early 70s, and we were having all sorts of strange and wonderful produce that a lot of people wouldn't have been into at that time - stuffed artichokes, classical French cuisine, game... I could pluck and gut a pheasant by the time I was 10. At the time, you don't really think about it, but when you look back and compare it to what some of the kids are faced with today in terms of what they're exposed to with food and their knowledge of food, it's quite a thing to cherish.”
It certainly is. It seems that Turan’s father’s influence runs deep – not just in his childhood understanding of fresh ingredients, but in the impetus to begin smoking salmon for himself.
“I had to listen to my dad whinge on about the rights and wrongs of supermarket smoked salmon and the availability of good quality produce, so I thought I'd give it a go and see if I could create some myself. At that time, there weren't many programs on the telly to show you how to do it, so I researched it a little on the very early days of the internet, speaking to people and visiting Scotland. I got an idea of what I needed to do and I ended up making some smoked salmon.”
Whilst it is now very much an established cookery school, Turan was only running coldsmoking.co.uk as a part-time venture (and was still working for the fire service) up until May 2014. The first opportunity for Turan to teach his craft came in 2010, when a group called the Low-impact Living Initiative asked him to step in and teach their food-smoking course.
“I thought ‘I could do this’”, Turan continues. “We started hosting our own courses, and were using venues that we could hire, until 2014, in September, when we moved into our premises in Great Linford. We started off with the food smoking courses, but my other interest was meat curing, and I thought it would be a good idea to add another course to the offer, and we now do a meat-curing and charcuterie course. We make chorizo, we make air-dried duck, we show people how to brine hams, we make a prosciutto-style air-dried ham, we show them how to cure bacon and make rolled pancetta. We cover quite a wide range.”
Impressive in itself, but even more so when you consider that the smoker Turan uses in his courses is the same design as when he smoked his first side of salmon.
“If you go on my website, there are some plans for sale for a smoker. It was that exact design: A wooden box. I designed it around the size of the food racks that I could get, and coincidentally, two of those side-by-side would fit a whole side of salmon. It was really geared around those dimensions, and I first made it that size because I had the idea that I was going to smoke a lot of stuff in it all at once, and it gave me the capacity to do that if I wanted to, but at the same time still use it as a small-scale smoker.”
By this point, I was sure I wanted to try my hand at food smoking myself. Smoked salmon is an incredibly delicate art but, without revealing too many details, Turan explains why it shouldn’t be as shrouded in mystery as it may seem:
“It's something that people are really surprised that they can go home and do. The techniques that I teach are specifically to demystify this process and make it accessible to people, so that they can take those techniques home and, with a very limited range of equipment and materials, produce something absolutely sublime.”
You can book a course with Turan or buy his plans for a home-built food smoker at coldsmoking.co.uk
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