SURRY — Middle school students got a hands-on lesson combining culinary arts and town history when Brett Ciccotelli brought the Downeast Salmon Federation’s new portable smokehouse for a visit to the Surry School last Wednesday afternoon.
Ciccotelli is a wildlife biologist who identifies himself as the “Alewife Ambassador.” His mission, at least in part, is to bring the message of the importance of alewives to the ecosystem, and the rolling fish smoker, to elementary and middle school students throughout Downeast Maine. Earlier in the week, Ciccotelli and his rig visited the Bay School in Blue Hill.
Last month, the arrival of spring brought the return of the alewife run to Patten Stream en route to their spawning grounds in a boggy area off the North Bend Road on the way to Lower Patten Pond. This year, a newly built granite fish passage eased their way.
It wasn’t all that long ago, certainly within living memory, that Surry residents lined the stream bank to capture the returning alewives and take them home to be smoked, split or whole, for family enjoyment. At one time, the town — and the Patten Stream alewife run — supported two commercial smokehouses that sold “bloaters,” whole smoked fish, at the price of 50 cents for a string of 10.
Smoked alewives are still a popular delicacy for some, usually older, Downeast residents. With the gradual restoration of the state’s alewife runs in progress, the salmon conservation group and Ciccotelli want to introduce the once common food to a new generation by bringing its mobile smoker to schools.
“We want to help keep some of the Downeast tradition of smoking fish,” Ciccotelli told a group of 10 students — sixth- and seventh-graders — waiting in the sunshine outside the smoker trailer. Principal Fred Cole said that more students would visit the smoker as the day progressed.
First came a brief lecture on the history of the alewife fishery and explanations of the difference between low-temperature cold smoking, often used for smelts, and the hot smoke method that was used for the alewives in the smoker. Ciccotelli also explained the distinction between split fish and bloaters, a food choice that mostly drew sounds of disgust from his young audience before they climbed into the smoker.
Inside the trailer, a prep area with refrigeration, sink and stainless steel work benches along both sides, occupies most of the space. Three wood-fired smokers stretch across the trailer’s front wall separated from the work space.
The students paired off and Ciccotelli handed each group a knife and a recently caught alewife. After an explanation, the students set to work scaling the fish, cutting their heads off, splitting them down the spine and removing their innards. The next step — delayed briefly by a visit from a group of third-graders — was to put the splayed fish into a smoker percolating along at about 180 degrees.
The reward for all that work, after they washed the slime and fish innards off their hands, was a chance for about a half-dozen brave students to sample some finished product as finger food.
The collective reaction did nothing to suggest that the demand for smoked alewives was about to skyrocket in Surry. At least not until a sustainable spring alewife run returns to Patten Stream.