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100 years of smoked Scottish salmon

Louis Forman at Billingsgate in 1935

Where did it all start?

Smoked salmon was first brought to the UK in the late 1800s by East European immigrants to London’s East End. They smoked to preserve fish, because refrigeration was basic. Forman’s (Est. 1905) is now the world’s oldest salmon smoker and the last surviving of those original East London smokehouses.

Why did smoked salmon become a gourmet food?

In the early days, the East London smokers imported salmon for smoking from the Baltic, not realising wild salmon was available from Scotland each summer. Having discovered the Scottish fish at Billingsgate market, they realised it would be easier to use the native fish and that the quality of the finished product tasted far superior. It was then introduced into fine dining and delicatessens and smoked salmon as a gourmet food was born. Part of the art was the ability to smoke the salmon to preserve it, but not leave a heavily smoked flavour. The Scots tradition at the time was in more heavily smoked fish like kippers or Arbroath smokies but the Scots did not generally smoke salmon at all.

Sides of smoked salmon hanging after smoking

What is the London Cure?

This delicate approach of lightly smoking salmon became known as the “London Cure”. It became popular with chefs particularly as it enabled fish to be preserved without hiding the natural qualityof the fresh fish. It worked as a starter where other, more heavily smoked products would leave a lingering taste on the palate, spoiling the flavour of later courses. Smoked salmon always was and still should be about the salmon, not about the smoke.Heavy smoke conceals the quality of the fish (often deliberately).

Forman’s HQ in Bow, East London

How have things changed over the years?

From being Britain’s first ever home-grown gourmet food, smoked salmon is now mostly mass produced and has by and large lost its way. Consumers don’t know what smoked salmon is meant to taste like any more, salmon farming has commoditised the product, made it cheaper and so the industry is now all about cutting corners to make the product cheaper still. As late as the mid 1970s there remained about a dozen salmon smokers in London’s East End;Forman’s is now the last remaining and sticks 100% to the traditional approach.

Fresh, wild Scottish salmon

The Raw Salmon – 100% Scottish Salmon

Smoked Scottishsalmon 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 issmoked in Scotland and can then be labelled as “Scottish smoked salmon”. They do it 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 into Billingsgate is Norwegian rather than Scottish. This is a real pity, there’s simply no substitute for really fresh fish. The waters have been muddied further witha recent marketing fad for romantic-sounding, made up farmed salmon brands. There is no place in Scotland called Loch Duart. The same applies to Loch Muir, which is M&S’s brand – another made up name. These brands give supermarket products a false air of traceability.

Hand filleting at Forman’s

Hand Filleting

90% of all salmon filletingin the UK is now done by machine. The problem with the machines is that they cannot handle the salmon when they are extremely fresh as the fish are stiff with rigor. They have to wait a day and a half whilst the fish loses its freshness and softens. Hand filleting is far more labour intensive, but produces a better quality fillet, not broken up by the machine. If these artisan food production skills are not maintained by traditional producers they will be lost for good.

When we fillet our salmon for smoking at Forman’s, we leave the rib cage and pin-bones in. Like meat being cooked, the product is better smoked on the bone. However, what this means is that when the fillet is smoked, the bones and the pellicle crust need to be trimmed away before the side of salmon is sliced. Most commercial salmon smokers remove the bones before smoking, and rather than trim away the crusty pellicle, this is left on and the side is fed through a slicing machine giving customers a chewy piece of smoked salmon trimming on every slice. If you see brown or dark colour edges to your salmon slices, this is an obvious sign of industrial processing. Given that the pellicle weighs about 20% of the sliced salmon on any side, customers are essentially paying 20% too much if they take this specification.

Sides of salmon being dry cured in rock salt

The dry-curing process with salt (only salt, no sugar!)

Before salmon is smoked it has to be salted. In traditional dry curing the fillets are placed in rock salt for up to 24 hours, where they lose 10% of their weight. The trouble with this for the producer is that when you lose 10% of the weight and the salmon is sold by the kilo, you suddenly lose 10% of your turnover. So most producers don’t do this – instead, they brine the salmon or worse still inject it with salt water to increase the weight rather than reduce the weight, which means they are selling water for the price of salmon.

Smoked salmon was introduced into supermarkets in a large way in the 1980’s. Supermarket buyers are fearful of short shelf-life products, especially with a high value, so they encouraged producers to increase the shelf life by adding more salt. Typically they would go to 5% salt, whereas Forman’s use 3%. We don’t want to compromise on eating quality for the sake of a long shelf-life. We want customers to eat the wild smoked salmon freshly and indeed all our home delivery and food service customers receive their smoked salmon from us within 2 days of it coming out of our kilns. Back in the mass production world to counterbalance the high salt levels producers then added sugar, look at most supermarket smoked salmon and you will see it listed as an ingredient. Sugar has no place in proper wild smoked salmon,it adds nothing to the eating quality. The reason for its use is to counterbalance an excess of salt, sweeten less fresh fish or too much smoke. It is also hydrophilic which means it retains water and again allows producers to sell their customers water at the price of salmon.Sugar on an ingredient label on smoked salmon is a bad sign.

Cured salmon in the kiln prior to smoking

The Smoking Process

Traditional smoking is done using oak, or a mix of oak and beech. The idea of whisky barrels is a complete nonsense and is another marketing idea dreamt up to try and link the success of ScotchWhisky with Scottish salmon. There simply wouldn’t be enough barrels to go round, even if this did enhance the flavour in some way. Perhaps salmon flavoured whisky should be next!

The smoking process is another drying process and the cured fillets lose a further 10% of their weight and even more if the fillets are hung during smoking. Once again, to avoid this, some of the lowest qualityproducers nowadays use liquid smoke flavouring and do not smoke the fish at all.Shockingly this is still allowed to be referred to as smoked salmon.It results in a sicklysweet, repeating flavour;smoked salmon that is usually quite wet and slimy and most likely sliced frozen by machine.

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.

Hand slicing, long ‘banquet’ style slices

All Forman’s smoked salmon is hand-sliced and we are proud of these skills. One of our staff set the Guinness World Record for hand-carving and pin-boning smoked salmon. We offer training to chefs, front of house and delicatessen staff in salmon carving. Smoked salmon tastes better hand-carved than machine carved and this should be done as close to the time of eating as possible. Being slightly uneven, hand-carving results in a greater surface area on the product so more flavour emanates compared to a product which is machine-sliced and too smooth.

The standard packing method of vacuum packing salmon is something that should ideally be avoided. Vacuum packing presses the texture of plastic on the salmon and results in smooth and slippery slices. It also squashes the oil through the fish. We often use the analogy of sliced bread vs. a whole loaf for vacuum packed vs. freshly carved smoked salmon - there is no comparison.

One more thing

Of all the controversy and debatable elements of the smoked salmon industry there is one that we find consistently raises more eyebrows than any other. It is a practice we would like to see banished from all smoked salmon and something that is completely unnecessary with traditionally produced, delicately flavoured wild smoked salmon. Please, please do not even consider adding a squeeze of lemon!