Holy Smoke

2nd January 2015

Clare Finney goes behind the scenes at the world’s oldest smoked salmon producer and finds out how the old traditions are being preserved…

“Once I’ve explained what’s gone wrong with the industry, you’ll spot it a mile off,” Lance Forman declares, pulling up in the backyard of an unassuming wood-clad building. It’s 7am, and the rain is streaming over London’s East End. To our left, the steel loins of the Olympic Park glisten bleakly in the dim light. To our right, a heavy black door beckons. It doesn’t look or smell like the site of ‘the world’s finest smoked salmon’ production, but as we dash through the downpour I am confident it will prove otherwise. Lance is the fourth Forman to manage H Forman & Sons since his great grandfather, Harry, founded it in 1905 – and you don’t reach 109 years old as a company without being very good at what you do.

And Forman’s – as it’s known colloquially by anyone who’s anyone in food – is good: the best, according to Harrods, Selfridges, and the many great restaurants they’ve long been supplying. My faith proves well founded the moment we pass through the door. The walls are salmon pink. There’s a photo of Louis, Lance’s grandfather, with the largest salmon caught that century laid before him at Billingsgate, and through a small window three large salmon sides can be seen: strung up with string and almost glowing in the warm light of the drying room. “Fresh, quality salmon, a little bit of salt to preserve it, just the right amount of oak smoke to enhance the flavour of the fish and that was it, right throughout the twentieth century,” says Lance, following my longing gaze toward the suspended delicacies. Only in the last twenty years has the smoking salmon industry really lost its way.”

I’m here to tour the smokehouse – but there are myths to dispel, he says, before we can start. The first is that smoked salmon is a traditionally Scottish dish. “It was an East London trade,” he grins, “it was never Scottish at all. Even as late as the 1970s smokehouses were only based here. It was brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms in Russia and East Europe.” Smoking fish was their tradition, a means of preserving the salmon brought over in large brine-filled barrels from the Baltic. “When they found wild salmon here, in Billingsgate market, they decided to smoke that instead, because the fish was fresher,” Lance continues, “and that fish was Scottish. There’s the connection. And because that fish hadn’t sat in brine for three months, it was significantly better quality.”

It became a gourmet food – “arguably Britain’s first, given foie gras and pâté are French” – and, as such, highly sought after. Delicatessens sliced whole sides up for well-heeled customers and five star hotels paired it with champagne. “It preserved and enhanced the flavour of wild salmon, which is a great fish,” Lance points out. “It wasn’t the smokey flavour the chefs raved about.” If it had been, Arbroath smokies and kippers – both strongly smoked – would be served at Michelin starred restaurants and Forman’s would most likely be out of business by now. “Our London cure is a mild cure,” he continues, “so it’s not smokey – and it only works if you have fresh, fine quality fish.”

Fast forward 20 or so minutes, and I’m shown a salmon being filleted before smoking. Its scales are glistening, marbled flecks, taut over flesh that gleams pale pink. “24 hours ago he was in the sea in Scotland. That’s freshness,” says Lance proudly. Smoked mildly – 13° for 24 hours – he’ll keep for 14 days before losing flavour and nutrients. Yet if fish is not this fresh, it cannot possibly be preserved with so little smoke and salt.

Back in his office, Lance is tackling the second myth. “One of the reasons a lot of salmon today tastes smokey is because producers are simply not using fresh fish,” he says. Their reasons are simple, have everything to do with the bottom line, and nothing to do with taste. With the advent of salmon farming, around thirty years ago, it was cheaper to produce the delicacy – at which point the supermarkets got wind of it. No sooner were they on board, then they started piling pressure on producers to reduce price.

Inevitably the result was a race to the bottom – the bottom being, in this case, the fish farms of Norway. They’re cheaper than Scotland (from which Forman’s source both wild and farmed salmon) because Norway’s salmon farming industry is eight times the size. “Of course, the fish take longer to get here,” Lance says, “so it’s less fresh – and it’s not had such fast flowing water, as it’s kept in Norwegian fjords and not river farms.” The best way to counteract this? Salt and an intense flavour that invariably comes from a smoke flavoured liquid, sprayed in chambers over the salmon to coat it – “like a spray tan. Then they sugar it, to counteract the bitterness. You wonder why it’s not nice?”

In short: most smoked salmon is Norwegian fish shipped to the smoking factories that have sprung up in Scotland, where it is injected with brine and smothered with smoke spray. It is then labelled Scottish because it’s been ‘smoked’ in Scotland, and sent to shops here. It’s usually vacuum packed, carries a considerable amount of sugar (to counteract the extra smoke and salt) and has a shelf life that relies on the fact that you’ll smother it with lemon come serving time. “Last time I did a taste comparison, two thirds of the supermarket salmon I opened was labelled as before its sell by date – and yet it was definitely off.”

It can be depressing: yet, in the last five years, Britain’s culinary scene has been shifting seismically. Our concern for provenance is rising, and with it our love of the artisan. Here Lance is leading. Not only is his salmon definitively artisanal food, but he’s an old hand, with the weight of four generations behind him. “When modern factories were springing up in Scotland and round the rest of the country, churning it out, we didn’t try to compete,” he says. “Now we’ve come full circle.”

Down in the smokehouse Lance leads me through each of the stages, unchanged since 1905: filleting, curing, smoking, slicing. Even filleting is done by hand, almost unheard of these days. “90 per cent of all salmon filleted in Britain today is filleted by machine. If you have well-trained people you can follow the shape of the bone with a knife and get a better yield,” he tells me. Sure enough the practiced hands of the fishmonger make light work of the heavy fish, cutting it into two gleaming, pink sides and a small pile of bones which he picks clean of scraps for pâtés and sausages. The sides, scattered with a snowy dusting of salt, then cure for 24 hours before being stacked high in the silvery, Willy Wonka-esque kiln.

Some of the bones are left in for the smoking process before being taken out, a traditional tactic that ensure a greater depth of flavour. “Meat tastes better cooked on the bone,” Lance points out, “and it’s the same with fish.” They smoke for 24 hours – a process which, together with the curing dehydrates the fish such that they lose almost 20 percent of their weight – hence widespread resistance to it. “Lost weight means lost turnover. That’s why so many smokehouses these days tend to use the sprays.”

Brine and smoke juice actually boosts the weight, so those who use this process can charge more, yet when it comes to taste and texture the end product is worse off. That’s why supermarket salmon tastes and feels oily and gelatinous in comparison to Forman’s, whose fish I can just make out through the kiln’s smoked window, blowing gently in their rich, oaky breeze. The smoke comes from an ingenious device by the side of the kiln which burns the whole oak blocks through friction, allowing total control. Most places use sawdust but this method serves to monitor the intensity of the smoke (and thus the flavour) and – perhaps more importantly – to minimise risk of fire breaking out in the factory. It’s an occupational hazard in smokehouses. Lance has been burnt before (in Hackney, where his factory was based previously) and is taking no chances here.

I’ve reached the tour’s end – and, to my relief, some breakfast in the form of a smoked salmon tasters. Hot smoked, cold smoked, wild and even gin and tonic cured salmon are manna to my tastebuds, and far exceed my already stellar expectations. Robust yet creamy, mild yet rich, each mouthful leaves me craving more, and when I leave the smokehouse (with some difficulty) I accept Lance’s Forman & Field home delivery catalogue gratefully. There’s no way I’m chancing the smoked salmon of supermarkets now the scales have fallen from my eyes.


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