In the Press: Cigar Aficionado
Cigar Aficionado: Weekly Wrapper
The Smoking Life
by Jack Bettridge
Senior Editor, Cigar Aficionado
Posted: October 4, 7 p.m. e.s.t.
Lewis Shuckman takes a drag off a Churchill, taps the ash into an empty caviar tin and allows that he enjoys traditional handmade, full-flavored Dominican cigars. "Handmade is key. You get even, but cool, smoke. That's important to me."
Shuckman knows something about tradition, smoke and the quality of handmade products. I'm talking to him in the office of his fish smokery on the west side of Louisville, Kentucky, where he is continuing a tradition handed down in his family for generations. The Shuckmans have smoked fish in Louisville since 1919. Recently, Shuckman has been a big part of the regional culinary rebirth dubbed "Kentucky fine dining" by Jim Gerhardt, chef at the nearby Seelbach Hotel.
The term describes a spectrum of gourmet dishes and ingredients (produce, meats, cheeses, spirits, etc.) indigenous to this area, so rich with limestone waters and frontier lore. Shuckman's contribution to the movement is taking fish from the wealth of spring-fed streams, curing it with, among other things, local bourbon, and smoking it with hickory from the trees that grow in the area.
It's a process performed totally by hand, and Shuckman is comparing it to the loving craftsmanship that goes into making premium cigars. "It's truly an art," he says, "and I want to say it's something you're born with."
As a lover of all things smoked, these are the words I want to hear. Shuckman goes on to explain that he uses smoking methods brought by his family from the Old World. "I'm Russian and German, so I like caviar and I love Beamers--rag tops preferably," he jokes. While he drives a pickup--not a BMW--he actually does can caviar, the roe from the locally raised spoonfish that he also smokes.
His method of smoking starts with a combination of wet and dry curing. The wet part is done in a vat full of spices and seasonings that include locally made bourbons: Pappy Van Winkle 15-year-old and Woodford Reserve. Salt is applied to the fish during the dry-cure portion of the process. "It is the oldest way to cure fish," Shuckman notes. "I know it's going to be the same thing day in and day out."
Consistency is important to Shuckman, so he uses state of the art smokehouses that apply smoke to the fish at very specific temperatures for closely monitored time spans. This is where important blending principles come into play, as Shuckman chooses woods for their unique interaction with the fish he is smoking. He uses alderwood--soft, light and sweet--to smoke salmon, just as native Americans have traditionally done. Spoonfish is largely boneless, so he uses hickory from the region, which works itself through the meat quickly. For trout, he uses a combination of hickory and ash because hickory alone would be too harsh. He explains that the procedure is aimed at finding the sublime mixture of smoke and fish meat, then smoking for precise time allotments: "We call it the Cohiba process."
Temperatures in the smokehouse hover at about 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fish stay in for six to eight hours during a process he calls hot smoking. He sometimes uses a method called cold smoking--the temperature stays below 65 degrees--on salmon to create what's known in the deli as lox.
Shuckman is especially happy that what he is doing is bringing recognition to the produce of the area. The spoonfish, he says, come from a state-run hatchery and are sold as fingerlings to local farmers, who raise them in ponds on their property. It's all part of what he calls the state's excellent "aquaculture." Kentucky sits over a limestone shelf that creates the particularly pure water that makes for fine bourbon and strong legs on race horses.
"The farmers here are a pretty colorful sort. They're good ol' boys," drawls Shuckman, who is not far from that distinction himself. "But they're shrewd and they're excited because this gives them another outlet for farming. We're all very proud of our horse industry, but it's really nice to see something else coming of age."
Another local contribution to his product is the hickory he smokes with. Shuckman says that a few years ago he took a trip over to Casey County, Kentucky, one of the largest producers of hickory-wood palettes in the country, and noticed prodigious wood scraps piling up as byproduct.
"I pulled one of those guys aside and said, 'We need to talk, son.' This was pure hickory," he says. "The real deal." Now he uses hickory sawdust from Casey in his smokehouses. Using the wood in the form of sawdust, he says, allows him to better control temperature, wind velocity and humidity in the smokehouse. It is a comparison he keeps coming back to, but Shuckman likens it to the way the blend of leaves in a cigar can make it burn just right.
Shuckman starts to espouse the virtues of cigars, bourbon and smoked fish: "You ever been to a party and everybody's a complete stranger until the cigars come out? Then you're smokin', you're drinkin', you're eatin' and you're talkin' about all of it. Spirits, cigars and smoked fish, they're all on the same page." He pauses for a moment in his reverie and cracks one of his trademark impish grins. "Except you'll notice our handrolled fish isn't square."
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