The Week the Lowly Kipper Became a Political Animal ; with a Little Help from John Prescott and Michael Howard, the Kipper Has Been Catapulted on to the World Stage. Christopher Hirst Celebrates the Humble Smoked Herring and Charts Its Progress from Whitby to Westminster

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So, it turns out that John Prescott and Gordon Brown did no more than buy some kippers during their summit meeting in the car park at Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, near Cairndow in Argyll. The two great politicos were turned away from the inn because they had omitted to take the precaution of booking a table. Rather than wait half an hour for a vacancy, Mr Prescott decided to purchase a pair of kippered herrings costing "about pounds 5". Despite accompanying him to the Loch Fyne shop, Mr Brown eschewed any piscine delicacies. Leaving aside the political implications of this fragrant encounter, there can be no doubt that the Deputy Prime Minister emerges as a paragon of gastronomic taste.

The greatest writers on British food agree the kipper is an unsung treasure of our cuisine, in which the oily splendour of the herring combines with the tangy smoke from oak sawdust in a perfect gastronomic marriage. In his book A Kipper With My Tea, the great Alan Davidson opined: "A good kipper is just about the greatest treat I can think of for myself." Jane Grigson maintained: "A good kipper is one of this country's worthy contributions to fine food." Another culinary icon, Jennifer Patterson, she of Two Fat Ladies fame, was more specific. She declared Loch Fyne kippers "wonderful".

Is there any smell more irresistibly tempting than that which wafts from a freshly-cooked kipper? (Though some maintain the taste never quite matches its olfactory invitation.) The London restaurant of Simpsons-in- the-Strand, which makes something of a speciality of breakfast, gets through 60 stones of kippers a year, although sales run in "fits and starts". A spokeswoman explained: "You just need one person to order a kipper and the smell gets everyone else thinking of kippers. If no-one orders a kipper, you might not sell any."

Yet the kipper is not for everyone. You cannot imagine Mr Blair wiping a spot of kipper juice from his chin at breakfast and cheerily yodelling: "Any chance of another, darling?" The kipper is enjoyed by both left and right, both high and low, but it is definitely not New Labour. It is both old school tie and old Labour. Like socialism, the kipper is a 19th century invention, though the word has been around for 1,000 years. Originally it meant a spent salmon, a fish that that has gone into terminal decline after giving its all during spawning. By the 17th century, "kipper" had come to mean a smoked salmon. In the 1840s, the term was adopted for smoked herrings by John Woodger, a fish-curer from Seahouses in Northumberland. After experimenting for some years, he launched the "Newcastle Kipper" on the London market in 1846. Though less salty than previous types of cure, the kipper did not keep so well and it was only the advent of railways and refrigeration that made it viable.

The kipper is a herring that has been split, gutted, briefly soaked in brine and cold-smoked (preferably over oak sawdust, but sometimes a mixture of woods) for six to 18 hours. It is not to be confused with other smoked herring products such as bloater (a Yarmouth speciality, this is dry-salted then cold-smoked with the guts left in to produce a gamey flavour) and buckling (a hot-smoked and therefore cooked herring). The red herring - which really did exist - was heavily salted and heavily smoked in order to produce an almost imperishable product that required protracted soaking before consumption. As the kipper slowly grew in popularity during the 19th century, the tough, brittle red herring declined, although it is still eaten in Greece and Africa.

In modern times, the slow-smoked kipper was almost usurped by a cheaper, dyed version. Originally produced as an economy measure in the First World War, the dyed kipper was originally tinted with a coal tar dye called Brown FK. Though a less hazardous colourant is now used, the product is still disdained by aficionados of the true kipper. …