Chirk Trout Farm & Smokery has built a fantastic reputation since the Simpson family acquired one of the oldest known trout farms in Wales almost 20 years ago. Jools Payne lands a Double.LL exclusive with owners, Richard and Rachael.
Anyone familiar with driving in and out of the Ceiriog Valley will recognise the immaculately manicured grass verges abutting either side of the entrance to the Chirk Trout Farm, which sits little more than a fly fisherman’s cast from Castle Mill.
Indeed, everything about this family-run business is immaculate. Driving through the entrance, you cannot fail to be impressed by the charming setting of the cute little farm shop building, A rill carrying fresh water from the River Ceiriog runs in front of the shop, babbling melodiously as it makes its way to feed the trout ponds. Weeping willows stand elegant sentry to the property. Pretty acer and apple blossom trees planted on the meticulously mown grass bank mark the births of owners Richard and Rachael Simpson’s children. A dinky little footbridge over the rill is so picture book perfect one can easily imagine Humpty Dumpty sitting atop, dangling his feet over the side for a paddle.
But don’t be fooled by this genteel introduction to Chirk Trout Farm. The relentlessly entrepreneurial Simpson family have put in years of toil and many a hard yard to build a business with an enviable reputation for product quality and customer service excellence.
At the heart of it all is Richard Simpson (43) and his equally hard-working wife, Rachael. The pair have two young daughters, Annabel and Heather. “Annabel loves helping out in the business,” says Rachael. “She’ll happily look after customers on a Saturday, chatting away with them. It’s great for helping her mental arithmetic too. We encourage her to tot up the bill in her head… then check it with a calculator,” she adds with a chuckle. “She helps her dad net the fish sometimes and is showing a genuine interest in the business.”
Rachael is a jolly soul. A qualified veterinary nurse, she left the job she loved soon after marrying Richard in 2001. “The mountain of EU paperwork changed my role, but animal husbandry is an ongoing passion,” she says.
It’s clear this husband and wife team care deeply about the welfare of their fish. Allegedly one of the oldest trout farms in Wales, having once been part of the Chirk Castle estate, the Simpsons acquired the premises in the autumn of the new millennium. Richard had previously worked at Upper Trout Mill in Glyn Ceiriog immediately following his graduation in fisheries management.
Running Chirk Trout Farm & Smokery is the culmination of a long-held career ambition for Richard, and with dad Tony taking care of the site’s aesthetics, mum Nerys plying her expert baking skills and Rachael supporting him in every element, the family business continues to go from strength to strength.
“We all muck in,” says Rachael. “We all do a bit of everything. Tony loves mowing, Nerys loves cooking and baking and I love doing the farmers markets and food festivals. But basically, we’re all involved in helping the business succeed.”
Both terrific cooks, Rachael and Nerys home-bake the delicious dishes sold through the farm shop, including Nerys’s legendary lasagnas, quiches, smoked salmon and smoked trout pates, pies and other delights for those tight on time, low on inspiration or who just need a night free from the stove. The well-stocked farm shop also sells fresh eggs from their own chickens and a range of tasty Welsh cheeses, biscuits and preserves from Wales and the borders.
The business began in 2000, after the family acquired the site from Richard’s cousin, Sean, who retained the fishing pools business next door. The trout farm’s smokery was built in 2002 and has proved a great revenue earner ever since. “Fish farming is seasonal so doesn’t sustain you through the winter,” Rachael reveals. “The smokery is pretty much going the whole time. Restaurant and consumer demand mean it’s manic here in the run up to Christmas and New Year when we have a rest, and then in January and February people have had enough of all that over-eating and start their diets, so demand for fish picks up again,” she adds.
After some tuition from an experienced smoker, Richard is largely self-skilled in smokery. “We contract smoke for a number of established cheese brands and other small producers,” he explains. “Once upon a time we smoked the bacon for Steve McArdle’s Butcher’s, and we get a number of previous customers saying they miss the taste of Steve’s smoked bacon. We also get a lot of country estate owners who rear their own pork and will come to us for their smoking,” says Richard. “We lightly smoke. That way we don’t overpower the true taste of the product. It’s a subtle addition that just offers up another dimension to the flavour.” Richard employs traditional smoking methods, including using locally sourced wood from the Theo Davies Mill in Glyn Ceiriog.
Predominantly, using oak, ash or beech, they also have a local provider who supplies the smokery with apple tree chippings. “Again, it gives just a hint of flavour that is the perfect match for cheese,” he adds.
Richard also smokes for the Ellesmere-based British Quinoa Company [keen-waa] is an increasingly popular alternative to rice or bulgar wheat with foodies. We’ve worked closely with the business creator to get just the right smoked flavour, including experimenting with different lengths of smoking times. We stock the products in our farm shop, and it’s been a pleasure to see how well they’ve been received. It’s a young business that looks set to grow as consumers become more familiar with quinoa.
“Our fantastic local chefs, like John Peace and Grant Mulholland up at the Hand Hotel at Llanarmon, will often bring in a given cheese they would like smoking, like Perl Wen, which lends itself beautifully to our light smoking process. Basically, we’ll smoke anything for anyone,” he chuckles.
“A lot of the supermarkets’ smoked products are ‘dipped’,” Rachael adds. “I had frequently wondered why cold smoked salmon bought from one of the major multiples often has a sort of slimy consistency. Our traditional smoking process dries it out, so you don’t get that slimy texture that puts some people off.
“We supply most of the local hotels in the valley, as well as the Three Eagles in Llangollen. For example, we gave Adam and Ollie from the Three Eagles some fresh trout fillets to experiment with. They both loved the beetroot flavour we used in the smokery. It’s good fun working with brilliant chefs; like us they’re always eager to seek out new tastes, fusions and flavours.”
It’s not only the area’s top restaurants that are valued customers. Prime fly and course fishing season starts around Easter, and the demand for fish stocks for fishing pools and fishing clubs begins in earnest. It’s this business that will keep Richard and the team busy right through until October.
“Around March time, the fishermen will go out to line catch. We supply the trout stock for fisheries across North and Mid-Wales, the Midlands, into Cheshire and right the way down south through Shropshire to Hertfordshire and as far as Swansea,” Rachael explains.
Supplying the country’s premier fishing lakes and rivers, including those at Lake Vyrnwy, sees Richard either managing his pools or out on the road for much of the summer. “A typical local delivery would be to the fishing ponds at Llandegla, where they have different sized and variously stocked lakes for kids, beginners and experienced linemen,” she says. “Some anglers will throw the fish back; other anglers may choose to keep and eat what they catch. Most fisheries will stipulate that fish over a certain weight must be returned. If a fish has been caught a few times they’ll go line shy, so a fishery will restock that lake to liven it up again. That’s our bread and butter business in summer.”
Whilst Richard is busy in the smokery or vacuum packing, there’s rotating the fish stocks to be getting on with, as well as the weekly test weighing. It’s quite a technical job and the logistics of when to feed, how much and when to move the growing fish on to a different pool can be quite complex.
Chirk Trout Farm breeds all its own trout from egg. The fish spawn in the winter and then they’re in the hatchery, fed by the Ceiriog’s spring water. “As all our fish are bred on site, they’re true Welsh trout,” Rachael says proudly.
“From egg to plate is usually about 18 months to two years. We tend not to force growth and take extreme care to scrutinise the condition of the fish. If you have too many trout in a pond, they’ll start to nip tails because they’re hungry so, pond rotation and managing stock levels is important and will change according to the size of the fish. Feeding levels are adjusted in line with our weekly test weigh results and varies significantly according to the seasons.
“Winter temperatures will see the fish go down to the bottom of the pond to keep warm where they pretty much lie dormant, so we drop feed levels simply to sustain them.” Rachael recalls the fierce winter of 2010 when temperatures plummeted to -16 degrees. “We ended up breaking through thick ice to see if the fish were still alive. We were constantly going around trying to keep the streams running. We’d never ever experiences such bitter temperatures before. Thankfully, the fish were fine.
“We can get a lot of growth into the fish in the summer months. When it goes very humid the oxygen levels drop in the pond, so needs monitoring. A lightning strike on a pond would be catastrophic. Last summer the river level went so low, we considered a pump. Normally, the weir diverts the Ceiriog through a sluice gate and regulate what comes in, in accordance with our abstraction licence. It splits into two little streams one at the front and one at the back and then goes back into the river. We borrow it for a bit.
“The Ceiriog is a good clean river that is well fed by a lot of natural springs. The water is regularly tested at points all along the river by Natural Resources Wales. On the odd occasion it can go chocolate coloured, say when it’s in full spate and churning up the riverbed, but it normally clears within a day.”
This small family business is a wonderful ambassador and beacon for all that is great about Chirk and the Ceiriog Valley, with its clean river, brilliant restaurants and a lovely family who work tirelessly to offer the very best quality fish and smoked produce possible. That they are the go-to provider for great switched on chefs at The Hand at Llanarmon, The Three Eagles, The Wild Pheasant, Gales Wine Bar and The Swan Inn is testament to that.
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