WHAT started with an old filing cabinet has become Essex’s first smokehouse.

Colin Webb, 50, and Katja Driesel, 38, launched the Hanningfield Smokehouse less than one month ago.

Their salmon, trout, pates and cheese are selling out at markets and are being stocked by popular farm shops.

They also smoke salt and garlic, and have even started trials smoking coffee.

Situated in a converted barn space in Great Prestons Lane, Stock, the pair operate four digitally-programmed smokers, as well as slicing and packaging their own produce.

“We started with five simple products, but the possibilities are endless,” says Colin.

“People have smoked eel, marmalades, bloody Marys and even vodka.”

Their kitchen is an amazingly clean and surprisingly smoke-free environment.

Inside Katja slices salmon on a silver work surface and some finished produce sits in their £2,000 vacuum-packing machine.

“People always assume we are in a dome with smoke billowing out of the top, which just isn’t the case,” adds Colin.

But that thick, smoky smell is immediately apparent hanging in the air and making me hunger for the pink slithers of salmon being prepared ahead of the 24-hour smoking process.

“We work here so much we no longer smell it,” Katja says.

Smoking food is an ancient art, but the equipment in Hanningfield Smokehouse is more Buck Rogers than Bedrock.

The four chrome cabinets are mounted on the wall with ventilation rising up into the roof.

This is an environmentally-friendly method for the modern age, producing smoke four times cleaner than traditional methods.

Smoking times and heat can be digitally programmed on a keypad at the front and a black funnel is stacked full of briquettes, which automatically drop into the machine when required to keep the smouldering heat alive and the smoke rising.

Some of these biscuit-shaped pellets are flavoured – Alder for trout, oak for salmon and fruit flavours like cherry for more experimental blends.

Inside, pink salmon sides sit on trays, absorbing the flavour.

But Colin and Katja have not completely ignored traditional techniques.

“In the old days, the master smoker would have a bag of chippings and would pour them out into a great big swirl,” Colin explains. “He would light it and it would burn in a spiral, like a wick, all the way round.”

He shows me an innovative tray which is divided into labyrinthine columns, which he fills and lights to keep food smoking over-night.

This, he insists, is more reliable than leaving automated technology to do the business in their absence.

The couple live a mere 800 yards from their unassuming, but charming kitchen, which is indicated by a wooden sign which Katja carved herself.

But they are novices when it comes to the commercial aspect of food smoking.

The food lovers took up the hobby after enrolling on a weekend smoking course in Cumbria in their leisure time.

The course, ran by ex-police officers who went on to provide smoked goods for Harvey Nichols and Prince Charles, taught them the basics.

When they returned home, they built their first smoking device out of an old filing cabinet, with food sat in each draw, a heat source at the bottom and a chimney bore into the top.

They named it Winston, after Churchill, due to their comparable smoking habits.

At this point, a year before their hobby took on commercial scope, they were chauffeurs, driving 10,000 miles every day, taxiing businessmen to Heathrow airport.

A regular client was Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, who was amused when they told her of their smoky tribute to the late PM.

“She laughed her head off. She was very amused,” says Katja.

But their driving business folded late last year and the pair found themselves looking for work.

It was then that the idea for the smokehouse began to evolve.

“There was nothing like it in the county, with the nearest competitor based in Suffolk,” says Colin.

They mentioned the idea to the Jobcentre which backed their business plan by funding commercial smokehouse training.

It was also supported by Essex County Council’s Innovation Programme, which provided them with mentors and helped them develop their new business idea.

The scheme, launched seven years ago, has helped hundreds of fledgling businesses with issues such as securing finances and planning.

Colin, who grew up in the stunning fishing area of Dumfries, Scotland, approached the visitors’ centre at nearby Hanningfield Reservoir in the hope they could help find them a home.

The reservoir, one of the largest trout fisheries in England, with more than 5,000 fish stocked there, was initially unable to help.

But the smokehouse has since struck up a partnership which will see them provide smoking services for the 200 anglers who fish at its waters each week.

Instead, they discovered a local farm unit and Katja drew up plans of how she wanted the kitchen decked out.

They even flew her 70-year-old father, who has decades of architectural experience, from their native Germany to oversee the building work, which they completed themselves.

“I’m not used to labouring. I’ve never had an honest day’s work of that kind in my life,” says Colin.

The Hanningfield Smokehouse opened in early October and has been an instant hit. Colin and Katja are still working very long hours, often getting to Billingsgate market for 3am to pick up their Scottish salmon orders.

Colin shows me a notebook he has kept while developing the idea. He has scribbled mantras inside, reminding him that this kind of artisan approach to food is coming back into fashion.

“It is a dying art,” he says. “But recently I have noticed people are looking back to the simple life a lot more than they have been.

“Anyone can smoke foods and it has been going on since cavemen days.

“At this level, it has been a steep learning curve and we are still learning, but things have started very well.

“We are not doing this to get rich.

“We want to stay as local as we can, be good at what we do and support small businesses.”

The food is prepared with a lot of love and affection for the craft and Katja enjoys publishing her own recipes on their website (www.hanningfieldsmokehouse.co.uk).

Colin tells me the whole process takes around three days, and involves curing the fish in salt, smoking it for 24 hours and then allowing it time to bring out the flavours.

But the real proof is in the tasting.

They offer me a slither of delicious smoked salmon and the amazing smoky flavour stays with me long after I have said my goodbyes.