A surplus of fish is best put to use in a smoker, writes Justin Newcombe with choosing the plant material to use part of the fun.

High summer is upon us and I have the perfect solution to your seasonal cooking malaise; now is the time to dig out that fish smoker you purchased all those years ago, the one that has been lying idle in its box in the garage, wedged between the freezer you got on sale last New Year and the bike you've never used. Remember?

Those basic little stainless steel portable smoking units are a godsend when the weather gets too unbearable to enter the kitchen and they present another option for dealing with any excess fish that you may have filling up your fridge.

It is prudent to note that these contraptions are typically "hot smoking" devices that cook the food as well as flavouring it, so that it can be eaten straight away. The art of cold smoking is another kettle of fish altogether (literally) and requires extra research if one intends to undertake more serious experimentation.

All of which, somewhat convolutedly, brings me to my gardening point: plants you can grow to use in your little smoker.


In Europe the plants of choice are traditionally alder, oak and beech and North Americans are fond of hickory, mesquite, pecan and fruit trees such as apple, cherry and plum. Up in Iceland the innovative folk use dried sheep dung for cold smoking fish, lamb and whale - crikey!

Here in New Zealand though the most well-known smoking material would have to be that ultra-reliable native, manuka (leptospermum scoparium). The beauty of this plant is its ability to thrive on neglect. Even now in late January you could buy small specimens and with a little watering they would make it through the final stages of the New Zealand summer only to take off come next spring.

Manuka typically grows to around two to five metres but can expand to tree-size proportions given the right conditions. If you treat it a little mean, it can be successfully assimilated into a suburban setting.

Apparently pohutukawa and rata chips also impart a pleasant flavour in the smoker. Pohutukawa is an iconic New Zealand tree but not an easy specimen to accommodate on your average city section.

The rata vine, although also capable of impressive heights, comes in a range of types and you can choose from red or white flowers (as with pohutukawa).

The great thing about rata vines is that with a little wilful manipulation these giants of the forest can be tamed to grow in a smaller environment. Interestingly, metrosideros carmina (the crimson rata vine) will grow as a bush when struck from cuttings taken from mature growth.

When grown from seed or cuttings from juveniles it grows as a vine, only flowering when reaching sunlight. So there you have it, a choice of bush or rampant, tree-eating vine.

Herbs also provide extra flavour to smoked foods. Rosemary, fennel, tarragon, thyme and even coriander seeds all provide interesting flavours ranging from the delicate to the robust.

But for the large quantities of smoking material required for all those fish I know you'll be catching this summer, manuka, the humble tea tree, is still number one.