A Gloucester Take on Cullen Skink


Editor’s Note: A big thank you to my friends at Twin Light Smokehouse in Gloucester, MA for providing the Finnan Haddie for this Cullen Skink. Another big thank you to my new friends at Moonlight Cracker Company for supplying their incredible oyster crackers.

Haddock chowder holds a special place in the centuries old fishing port that I call home. It doesn’t matter if your family are old Yankees, from Nova Scotia, Portugal, Sicily, Scandinavia or elsewhere. Many of us prefer a good haddock chowder over the more well-known New England clam chowder.

Historically, the haddock season coincided with the winter, when vegetables beyond potatoes and onions were scarce. Of course, you could just switch out the haddock for cod or whatever you happened to be catching at the time. Chowder is certainly traditional, but it has also evolved with the times to include different ingredients.

Few people know that chowders were once dairy free and were built up in layers of ingredients. It was the potatoes and “hard bread” or crackers that thickened the chowder instead of milk or cream. Ship’s biscuit, hard tack, pilot bread are all names for very hard cracker like products. These were originally used as non-perishable provisions at sea. These crackers were usually too hard to eat without breaking them up and soaking them in some liquid like coffee or in stews. There are centuries old examples of this stuff in museums that are still edible, in the strictest sense of the word.

The modern oyster cracker descended from these various types of “hard bread” and still retain some characteristics. They stand up for a time in a bowl of chowder or Cincinnati chili but are not baked hard enough to be used in this traditional fashion.

Moonlight Cracker Company

moonlight oyster crackers

Enter Moonlight Cracker Company, located in Southeast Pennsylvania. The Buying Seafood team met these nice people at SENA 2023 in Boston and they wowed us with their incredible product. They make the best oyster cracker I’ve ever had. Harder and crunchier than those little packets you get with your soup, but softer than traditional ship’s biscuit. They also taste great and make for a crunchy snack all on their own. It was a no-brainer to order a package when I was planning this post. If I ever muster up the courage to make an old-school, non-dairy chowder, these are the crackers I will be using.

Finnan Haddie from Twin Light Smokehouse

Twin Light finnan haddie

I recently posted about Gloucester’s own Twin Light Smokehouse, and I have really enjoyed their products. Their Finnan Haddie is an artisanal cold-smoked, cured, fillet of local haddock using honest ingredients and no shortcuts like soy. If you are familiar with smoked haddock, you may notice it is not a bright golden yellow. Smoked haddock was often dyed to give it a hue closer to the original peat smoked Finnan Haddie. They used to do this to cod as well, to pass it off as the real deal. Some smokehouses still dye their smoked fish, but it does not add any flavor. Twin Light is among the smokehouses that have opted for a more natural approach, and I appreciate that.

What is Cullen Skink?

Gloucester’s close connections to Nova Scotia include many recipes that were originally brought over from Scotland, Ireland, France and Germany. Within my own genealogy I have a Scottish line via Grandma’s Nova Scotian heritage (her maiden name is MacDonald). The tradition of finnan haddie became a New England favorite, so it boggles my mind that we didn’t grow up with most Scottish of chowders: Cullen skink.

This hearty chowder originates in the small fishing town of Cullen on Scotland’s East Coast. Haddock is the fish of choice in Scotland and Cullen skink utilizes local smoked haddock. This was traditionally smoked with peat and green wood. The origin story has something to do with a beef stew, skink being a Scots word for a shin/shank of beef. Scottish thriftiness may be a stereotype, but in a fishing town, with plenty of smoked haddock it makes sense to save the cows and use the milk.

I like to get inspired by recipes and then go with instinct. When it came to making a Cullen Skink I started at the source: Cullen, Scotland. I took a look at local menus since most of the restaurants and hotels serve a version of their most famous soup. The Cullen restaurants keep it simple: smoked haddock, potatoes (tatties), onion, either milk or cream and some chopped parsley.

There is even an annual Cullen Skink World Championship held in Cullen that is open to all. Based on their strict rules on ingredients, what I intend to make would be eligible for the “Traditional” contest. The organizers also have a “with a twist” contest where you can embellish the traditional recipe with other ingredients. I think I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s see how this turns out first.

Gloucester “Skink” – Smoked Haddock Chowder

Recipe by Buying SeafoodCourse: Seafood Recipes, SoupsCuisine: Scottish, SeafoodDifficulty: Easy
Prep time

10

minutes
Cooking time

35

minutes

This version uses cold-smoked Finnan haddie, which needs to be poached before using. Hot-smoked haddock or another whitefish is already fully cooked.

Ingredients

  • 1/2lb Finnan Haddie or smoked Haddock
    cullen skink ingredients

  • 6-8 Yellow Potatoes, peeled and rough diced

  • 1 Celery stalk diced.

  • 1 Leek (white only) chopped.

  • 2 cups Whole Milk

  • 1/2 cup Light Cream

  • 16oz Bar Harbor Clam Juice

  • 2Tbsp. Butter

  • Parsley and Dill chopped.

  • Optional: Moonlight Oyster Crackers
    oyster crackers moonlight

Directions

  • Sweat leek and celery in butter until soft and translucent.
    Leeks and celery
  • Lower heat and add milk and bring to simmer. Add the Finnan Haddie and poach covered about 5 minutes.
    finnan haddie poached
  • Let cool 3-4 more minutes then remove fish. Remove skin and flake once cool enough to handle.
    flaked smoked haddock
  • Add potatoes, clam juice or stock to milk and bring back to simmer. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes.
  • Use immersion blender or food processor and blend 1/3 to 1/2 of the chowder to thicken to your liking.
  • Add the Finnan Haddie and stir to mix well. Add in the cream, herbs and any salt and pepper as needed.

Notes

  • You can easily change the ratio of potatoes and smoked haddock depending on how smokey or thick you want it to be.
  • I intended to only use milk but I needed more liquid to cook the potatoes. If this happens to you, I suggest a fish stock or bottled clam juice like I did.

The Verdict on “Gloucester Skink”

cullen skink no oyster crackers

I should have been making this for years. A creamy, thick haddock chowder with that delightful smokey flavor. The Gloucester skink was also really simple to make as a one-pot meal. I watched videos from the World Championships in Cullen and most use a two-pot approach. My recipe is certainly not eligible for the traditional version, but I must admit it was closer to the original than some versions I’ve seen prepared.

The smoked haddock chowder was warm and satisfying on its own. But I dare say the piece de resistance was the amazing oyster crackers from Moonlight Cracker. I crushed a few into my chowder like it was ship’s biscuit and it added another dimension to this delicious chowder. These oyster crackers don’t get mushy, they hold up and stay crunchy all the way to the last bite. Twin Light finnan haddie and Moonlight oyster crackers are a match made in heaven. Who knew I would find the best oyster crackers for a New England/Scottish chowder a short drive from the Chesapeake Bay!

You got to make this chowder! Twin Light Smokehouse products are available through Cape Ann Fresh Catch and at Whole Foods. Moonlight Cracker is on Facebook and also has an online store, so you already got a head start on some savory, smokey, deliciousness. Coming in from the cold to have a steaming bowl of Cullen…or should I say Gloucester Skink, waiting for you is just a little bit of heaven.