Where did it all start?
Over the last millennium, people have found ways of preserving food at what we might refer to as room or ambient temperature. So the salting and drying or smoking of fish has happened for a long time. Before the days of refrigeration, the level of salting and drying was intense enough to reduce the moisture content significantly. To modern tastes, such salting of salmon would be unpalatable, even if the fish was soaked in water before eating, as one does with bacalao (salt cod), to bring out much of the salt.
In this short history we are studying the development of what we know as smoked salmon. Smoked salmon was enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans – and held in high regards by the native Americans and while we can trace the history of smoked salmon back to Stone Age coastal communities in the UK, the history of Scottish smoked salmon is widely agreed to date back to the late 1800s when smoked salmon was brought to the UK by East European immigrants to London’s East End. They smoked to preserve fish, because refrigeration was basic. Forman’s (established in 1905) is the last surviving of those original East London smokehouses and one of the world’s oldest salmon smoker.
Why did smoked salmon become a gourmet food?
In those early days, the East London smokers imported salmon from the Baltic, not realising wild salmon was available from Scotland each summer. Discovering the Scottish fish at Billingsgate market, they realised it would be easier to use the native fish and soon found that the quality of the finished product tasted was far superior. It was then introduced into fine dining and delicatessens as a gourmet food. Part of the art was to smoke the salmon to preserve it, but not leave a heavily-smoked flavour. The Scots tradition was more heavily smoked fish like kippers or Arbroath smokies and the Scots did not generally smoke salmon at this time.
During the last century, the London smokers’ allegiance to Scottish wild salmon wavered. In the early part of the 20th century, the catches of wild salmon allowed a reasonable raw material price. Large runs of salmon in the summer produced high volumes at low prices to be frozen by the smokers as stock for the winter months. By the 1980s, Scottish wild salmon was being caught in lower numbers and the price per kilo was climbing. Meanwhile, large volumes of frozen Pacific salmon began to arrive in the UK, mainly ‘pinks’ and ‘chums’, at a fraction of the price. This opened up the market for smoked salmon in the supermarkets at a much lower price point, although the quality bore little relation to the finest smoked wild salmon.
What is the London Cure?
The approach of lightly smoking salmon became known as the “London Cure”. It became popular with chefs as it enabled fish to be preserved without hiding the fresh, the natural quality. It worked as a starter where other, more heavily smoked products would leave a lingering taste, spoiling of later courses. Smoked salmon should be about the salmon, not about the smoke.
How have things changed over the years?
From being one of Britain’s first ever gourmet foods, smoked salmon is now mostly mass-produced and relatively inexpensive. Most consumers don’t know what smoked salmon is meant to taste like any more and the industry is now governed by price. Today, only a few smokers keep to the original ‘London Cure’ recipe but artisanal smokehouses with their own ideas are making a comeback.
The Raw Salmon – 100% Scottish Salmon
Smoked Scottish salmon is the true and original gourmet food, not smoked English, Norwegian, Pacific or Faroese salmon. Nearly half of all salmon sold in the UK comes from Norway, a lot of this is smoked in Scotland and can then be labelled as “Scottish smoked salmon”, taking the epithet from the location that the salmon is smoked in, rather the provenance of the raw material. This is because Norwegian salmon is cheaper, but it is always 2-3 days less fresh because of the journey from Norway. 95% of all the salmon coming nowadays into Billingsgate is Norwegian rather than Scottish and much of the salmon farmed in Scotland is of Norwegian origin anyway. Loch Duart has the only swimming Scottish broodstock.
90% of all salmon filleting in the UK is now done by machine. Hand filleting is far more labour intensive, but produces a better quality fillet. These food production skills are being maintained by a number of traditional and artisanal producers.
- Pished Fish
- Ardshealach Fine Foods
- Caithness Smokehouse
- Loch Torridon Smokehouse
- The Valley Smokehouse
The dry-curing process with salt (only salt, no sugar!)
Before salmon is smoked it is salted. In traditional dry curing the fillets are placed in rock salt for up to 24 hours, where they lose 10% of their weight. Many producers don’t do this – instead, they brine the salmon or still inject it with salt water. This increases the weight and reduces the quality.
Sugar on a smoked salmon ingredient label is another bad sign. The reason for its use is to counterbalance an excess of salt, sweeten less fresh fish or too much smoke.
The Smoking Process
Traditional smoking uses oak or a mix of oak and beech.
The smoking process is a drying process and the cured fillets lose around 10% of their weight, even more if the fillets are hung during smoking. Low quality producers nowadays use liquid smoke flavouring and do not smoke the fish at all and, as a result, the cheapest smoked salmon on the shelves may not be a bargain.
The slicing process (and packing)
Virtually every smoked salmon company in the UK slices their salmon by machine. What this means is that there are not people, or experts, there to quality control each slice to ensure customers get 100% satisfaction. Fish are natural and from time to time some may not be perfect throughout the flesh. A machine cannot identify this, a human can.
Smoked salmon tastes better hand-carved than machine carved especially if this is done as close to the time of eating as possible.
The standard packing method of vacuum packing salmon presses the texture of plastic on the salmon and results in smooth and slippery slices – always try for hand carved and remember that many purists will never even consider adding a squeeze of lemon!