Thule Ventus: giving a modern look to a centuries-old tradition

29 May 2020

Millions of people have grown increasingly accustomed to catching up with family and friends over Skype, Zoom or Facetime during the Coronavirus lockdown lately. But Thule Ventus owner David Polson found another means to reach loved ones – and many more besides – as he was beamed straight into folk’s living rooms through an appearance on James Martin’s “From Islands to Highlands” ITV show at the start of the month...

That level of national exposure has, needless to say, come as a real boon for his small, Cunningsburgh-based business.   

Taste of Shetland is delighted to now be stocking Thule Ventus’ range of air-dried salt cod and piltocks, along with its recently-launched cod jerky snacks, through our online shop. The fish comes in sealed packs that can stay in your cupboard for at least nine months.

Rooted in centuries-old island traditions, Thule Ventus hand prepares and cures its skinned, filleted and boned cod, sourced from the waters around Shetland and featuring the name of the boat that caught the fish printed on each pack.

We caught up with David this week to find out how business has been over the past couple of months.

“It’s been fairly good in all honesty,” he says. “Most folk are looking for anything that can be bought online, and we’re benefiting from that general change in behaviour. James Martin has done us no harm, so the two things have come together.”

He said Thule Ventus enjoyed a “sharp spike” on the day of broadcast and an upturn that lasted several days afterwards, and even now trade has “settled back down again” there are still “more busy days than quiet days”.

David speaks warmly about the experience of briefly becoming a star of the small screen.

“Half the world has seen me!” he says. “I had to sit and watch it from behind the cushion, you know what it’s like hearing or seeing yourself, but it was okay.

“The filming was very good, very painless. They were here for about 40 minutes and filmed for about 20. The way they did it there was no run-up, they just told me ‘go in there, start playing with the fish and James will come in – he’ll do a voiceover at the start of the feature explaining who you are, so just act as if you’ve already met’.

“The first time I spoke to him was on the screen, and you just had to wing it!”

Despite an understandable reticence over watching the end result, David came across as a natural in front of the camera.

In the series’ accompanying cookbook you can find Martin’s appetising recipe for a tomato ragout with Shetland cod and piltock. You can also see the man himself showing you how it’s done here

And, whether your taste buds are tickled by French, Spanish, Norwegian, Mexican, American or British cuisine, fans of salt fish can work their way through a full smorgasbord of recipes on Thule Ventus’ own website.  

David says the burgeoning market for his products is broadly split 50-50 between two types of customers. There are those who grew up with the tradition, either here or abroad, and know what they’re after. And there are foodie types hunting for something a bit different.

“You get folk that have grown up with the fish, maybe Portuguese or Spaniards living in the UK, or folk from coastal communities who know what to do with it and know what it is. If you present them with a quality product they’ll buy it.

“The other side tend to be more the foodie market, and that’s the folk you need to tell the interesting story of heritage, the history, the nuts and bolts of the product.”

In short, the process is about “making life easy for folk” by taking out the skin and bones and creating an end product that’s “ready to take out of the packet and soak”.

The fish itself is supplied by Blydoit through the Lerwick and Scalloway fishmarkets, and overwhelmingly caught by the local fleet, David says: “It’s line-caught if we can, if not line-caught then seine net, if not then it’s trawled. That’s the kind of hierarchy.”

While modern filleting techniques are employed, the salting process is “very similar to how it’s always been done – you need salt and you need plenty of time!”

When salting cod, David seeks to take any brine that forms away to avoid staining its white flesh. After about a week it is “as cured as it’s ever going to be” and the remainder of the process is “really about texture.

The fish is then set on trays and dehmuidified, taking down its moisture content. In all the full process takes around eight weeks and “once we get to a stage of dryness that we’re happy with, we cut it and weight it and bag it, ready to go.”

The sleekly designed packaging demonstrates how Thule Ventus is succeeding in bringing a classy modern look to a centuries-old form of food production in the age of globalisation.

The salting process for the locally-caught cod takes around eight weeks.The salting process for the locally-caught cod takes around eight weeks.For new customers David recommends either an 80g air-dried pack, the cheapest volume he sells, or a 500g pack of wet salt cod – known as traditional bacalao – which is “slightly easier to soak and more forgiving when you cook it” having lost around 80 per cent of its weight during the process.  

A new offering is packs of cod jerky. Thule Ventus had “started to make inroads” speaking to pub chains on the UK mainland and had been arranging meetings and demonstrations when Covid-19 struck.

That has been put on hold with the focus shifting to online sales alongside the prospect of working with a company that sells mail-order boxes of craft beer.

And with no certainty over when going to an actual bar might be a realistic possibility again, in the meantime why not avail yourself of some Thule Ventus pub snacks to make your Friday night dram that little bit more authentic? 

  • You can buy Thule Ventus produce - along with goods from several of our other members - straight to your doorstep through Taste of Shetland's shop 

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