Max Krauch arrives at J. Willy Krauch & Sons Ltd. at 3 a.m. most days. It's still hours before daybreak, but Max wants to get in to work early. Just to check on things.
"I like to take my time to see how everything is going and get ready for the day. I like it in here, it's very relaxing," he says.
He's taking the time to make sure it's done right, just as his father did before him.
Ever since 1956, when Jorgen Willy Krauch opened a Danish-style smokehouse in Tangier, Nova Scotia, this family-run operation has been a place where the time-honoured tradition of doing things the old-fashioned way reigns supreme.
You could call it the art of producing a perfectly smoked fish.
Top-quality smoked fish takes time and care, Max says. Sure, automated machinery would speed up production, but it would take something away from the taste and quality of the product. "When you're doing it all by hand, you're paying attention to the details. I can taste the difference and I think other people can too."
Jorgen Willy Krauch - known to everyone as Willy - emigrated from the small island of Fejo, Denmark in 1951 with his wife Irene and three young children, Jane, Tonny and John. As a young man in Fejo, Willy had owned a fishing boat and smoked his own fish, which he sold from a box mounted on his three-wheeled freight bicycle. Once in Canada however, Willy turned his hand to whatever he could to provide for the family in those early years as an immigrant, first working at an abattoir for Larsen's Meat Packers in Berwick, Nova Scotia, before moving to northern New Brunswick work at a fish plant then back to Nova Scotia, where he worked as a lumberjack for five years.
Seeking more independence and a return to his love of smoked fish, Willy bought a 1953 Fargo truck and scoured coastal Nova Scotia in search of a new homestead. In the summer of 1956, just 80 kilometres up the coast from Halifax, he found the perfect spot.
In the picturesque village of Tangier, Willy bought a fully furnished house and four acres of land for $1,000. His family was growing so he got to work on his smokehouse right away - a simple tarpaper-clad building with an attached brick hot smoker and a wooden cold smoker. Willy was back into the trade he loved and although he may not have known it at the time, he'd created an enterprise that would become world-famous.
Today's smokehouse was built in 1972, on the same spot as the original. At the front of the building visitors can buy an array of top-quality fish, smoked in Krauch's own traditional Danish style, from a display case. Many also take the time to peruse the wall of memorabilia - photos of Willy peddling smoked fish back in Denmark, laminated letters of appreciation from Buckingham Palace and clippings of reviews from esteemed papers, such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.
"We hear from a lot of people that it is the best they've ever tasted, that it's the best in the world. They're saying it, not us. But it sure is nice to hear," says Alice Rutledge, one of Willy's younger daughters, who first began working at the smokehouse when she was 16.
Max took over managing the business in 1992, one year before Willy died. In the early years of the business all ten of the Krauch children worked at the smokehouse at one time or another. Today Max and Alice, and along with three other family members and other long term employees, produce an annual 250,000 pounds of smoked fish, including smoked eels - one of Willy's personal favourites.
It's labour-intensive work, but as Alice says, it's been acclaimed many times over as the best in the world.
So, what's the secret to producing a perfectly smoked fish?
First you start with a nice firm fish, Max explains. "I always ask my suppliers for a sample before I buy it, just to be sure it's good."
Next - and it's the same basic process for salmon, mackerel, trout and herring - the fish is cleaned, deheaded and filleted. With the skin still on, the fillets are salted, rinsed and air-dried on screens before going into the ovens where they're smoked at a low temperature for about 40 hours above a fire made using maple kindling smothered under a layer of maple sawdust - all shovelled by hand, of course.
"We keep the skin on otherwise the fish would dry out. How long it's in depends on the fish, depends on the weather … there are lots of things to consider," says Max. "Basically, it's all a matter of timing and temperature. Little things can make a difference to how long before it's done. I just know by looking at it. I can tell by the colour and by the texture of the fish if it's done or not."
After they're finished being smoked, the skins and dark meat is taken off before being vacuum-packed and shipped - fresh or frozen - around the Maritimes and across North America.
While many of the orders are shipped to restaurants and grocery retail outlets, many more are custom orders, done precisely to order.
"People know we'll do their fish just the way they like it. We pride ourselves in doing that. That's the way our father did it and that's the way we do it." Alice says.
In a little office tucked away from the main part of the smokehouse, Susan Boutilier runs the office and administration end of the business. Come Christmas she spends countless hours handwriting Christmas cards to go with the hundreds of orders being shipped out as gifts. Most are for long time customers who appreciate the personal touch and care that goes into every aspect of this operation.
"Max has got a phenomenal memory. He knows every customer by name. It's incredible. Anytime I have a question I ask either Max or Alice, between them they know absolutely everything about this business."
It's a hard work, but it's his life and Max Krauch can't imagine doing anything else.
Will he ever retire?
"Nah. Maybe I'll semi-retire someday, but I'll always come around. What else would I do?"