Eating In: Where the wild fins are

Smoked salmon made from farmed fish is no substitute for wild fish smoked in the traditional way. It's more expensive but it's worth every penny. Try some, urges Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
DO YOU have a feeling that smoked salmon isn't the delicacy you once thought it was? You're right, of course.

There was a time when British smoked salmon and Whitstable oysters were ranked as luxury items alongside the caviar of Russia, the foie gras of Perigord and the white truffles of Piemonte. But just as our oysters have been outnumbered by the more commercial, faster-growing and cheaper rock variety, so fine smoked salmon has been eclipsed over the last 15 years by the growth of farmed salmon.

While farmed fish can make decent smoked salmon, the best by far is made with wild fish. And for obvious reasons, it is going to cost more. Double, to be precise.

Sceptical that it's worth the expense? Then just sit down to a plate of well-made smoked farmed salmon and a plate of wild smoked salmon and taste the difference for yourself. The first is salty, smoky and tasty enough (farmed salmon, being quite fatty, lends itself quite well to the smoking process).The second is buttery and silky, savoury without being salty, and doesn't really taste of smoke at all.

Such a tasting session should help you understand why the discriminating folk who shop at Fortnum & Mason (where 95 per cent of the smoked salmon stocked is made from wild fish) pay up cheerfully enough and persuade you to restore smoked wild salmon to your list of the world's great gourmet foods.

Until the emergence of salmon farms, the best-known smoked salmon was the salty, oaky Scottish product. The Scots always had a monopoly on curing fish, as salting and smoking processes were an essential means of preserving fish before refrigeration. But, in the last century, smoked salmon, far from being a delicacy, meant hard, heavily salted fish, which was crudely smoked and had to be soaked overnight before chunks could be cut off to grill for breakfast.

London's Jewish community is credited with introducing us to proper smoked salmon, although theirs was a milder-flavoured variety, known as the London cure. It dates from the 1870s onwards, when, having escaped the pogroms of Poland and Russia, Jewish immigrants began to settle in the East End of London, and brought with them the trade of fish-smoking.

Lance Forman, managing director of the leading London smoker, H Forman & Son, says his own great-great-grandfather, who came from Russia in 1905, was one of many who established a business with a modest smoking chimney.

"They were basically serving their own community," Lance explains. "They imported barrels of salted Baltic fish, sturgeon, salmon, herrings, sprats, eels, and smoked them."

Then they discovered that, at Billingsgate fish market, they could buy much better, more delicately flavoured salmon from Scotland at a good price.

Over the years it found favour with chefs at top London hotels and by the Twenties London smoked salmon had started to assume gourmet status. The Scots competed too, producing a stronger-flavoured, but equally delicious product.

Fast-forward to the Eighties, and suddenly farmed salmon propelled the product into another realm. "Initially the Scots got a lot of subsidies - it was a disaster for the London smokers," Lance says. "The prices became so competitive that London smokers started to close. Of about 15 companies 10 years ago, only four remain. My father said, we can't compete producing cheap salmon, so we'll have to go for the best."

And the best is wild salmon. While the volume of farmed salmon runs into many millions, that of wild salmon is a bare quarter of a million and dwindling. This is not a result of the greenhouse effect, global warming, or the melting Arctic ice cap, claims Lance, but rather our regard for doe-eyed seals. Their number has tripled in the last few years (protected by environmentalists) and their favourite feast is homing salmon.

Factory manager John Cherrie, himself a Scotsman, showed me the difference between farmed and wild animals. A 12lb wild salmon, about five years old, dwarfs its farmed counterpart. Its eyes and mouth are keen and alert, its glistening back lean, straight and muscular, its tail webbed and strong. The farmed salmon, 18 months old, fed on a daily diet of pellets, has a small mouth, a humped back, a dull brown coat and a sad frill for a tail.

While Forman's method of curing is no secret. It results in such considerable weight-loss, and therefore diminution of profits, that competitors aren't interested. Some of his rivals, says Lance with contempt, now cut out the weight-loss inherent in the smoke-drying process completely by injecting the fish with brine and then spraying it with smoke-flavoured essence. The Forman way is traditional: the fish is dry-salted for 12 hours, washed and then dried for four hours. This is followed by 12 hours of cool-smoking in a state-of-the art stainless steel cabinet and a final four hours of drying.

The salmon come out crispy and brown on the outside, moist inside. Expert handlers trim the fish, picking out the 64 pin bones with pliers. Others, using a Whizzard, a circular electric cutting-disc, slice the salmon.

"We equate our smoke-house with a bakery," says Lance Forman. "Smoked salmon comes out of the kiln at 4am. We get it to top hotels (the Dorchester, the Savoy, the Connaught) by 8am, so they can have it fresh on their tables for breakfast and lunch. It is used up so quickly that it doesn't need a strong cure."

Good smoked salmon is best eaten on its own with a wedge of lemon, or perhaps with blinis and a dab of caviar and sour cream. Michel Bourdin, who will in the year 2000 celebrate 25 years as the Connaught Hotel chef, will be offering such a dish on his Millennium menu.

Another favourite dish is Albert Roux's famous mousse wrapped in smoked salmon, which helped him earn the distinction of making Le Gavroche Britain's first three Michelin-starred restaurant. For the recipe, see right.

BLINIS

Serves 4 to 6

8oz buckwheat flour (or half-and-half buckwheat and plain white flour)

12 packet activated yeast

3 eggs, separated

about 34 pint milk, slightly warmed

pinch salt

Mix the yeast with half the flour and half the milk, add the three yolks, beaten, and leave for half an hour to start to ferment. Beat in the remaining milk and flour, and leave for half an hour. Before cooking, whisk the whites to a froth, and fold them into the batter mixture. Grease a pan (non-stick is best) and fry the blinis, ladling in a dollop of mixture to produce a pancake about 10cm (4in) wide. It will rise to 1cm (12in) in height. Serve very hot, with caviar on smoked salmon, and sour cream to taste.

PAPILLOTES DE SAUMON FUMe CLAUDINE

Serves 6

6 slices smoked salmon, each weighing about 45g/112oz

100g/4oz smoked salmon trimmings

25g/1oz smoked trout fillet

275ml/10fl oz double cream

6 tablespoons fish aspic (see below)

To make the mousse, place the salmon trimmings and the trout in a blender or food processor, and process for one minute. Rub the resulting puree through a fine sieve into a small bowl set in crushed ice. Using a spatula, fold in two tablespoons of melted, cooled fish aspic, then gradually stir in the cream, adding a little at a time, particularly at first, to avoid lumps. Season to taste with salt.

To assemble the papillotes, lay the six slices of smoked salmon on a wooden board, divide the mousse between the slices, then roll up each one. Fold over the ends to form neat parcels. Arrange the parcels on a wire rack and place in the refrigerator. When they are very cold, use a spoon to coat the papillotes with the half-set fish aspic.

To make the aspic, cover the bones of white fish, a little chopped onion and carrot and a glass of white wine with water, and simmer in a saucepan for 20 minutes. Strain through a cloth and then melt a leaf or two of gelatine in the liquid.

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