FOOD & DRINK: A NEW ANGLE ON; SALMON

Is salmon now a bore? Not if it's the real wild thing, says Michael Bateman, as he joins the experts by the waters of the River Dee
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The Independent Culture
FED SALMON every day, shipyard apprentices in South Shields went on strike 130 years ago. A similar revolt is apparently imminent among certain sections of London society.

Matthew Norman, writing in the London Evening Standard, groans that the merest hint of summer unleashes a glut of salmon with its ugly pink flesh (looks slimy, tastes dry) on every menu. "At least three times a week and prob-ably more, at every dinner party, every wedding, every social occasion of every kind, we will be faced with the problem of once again smiling fiercely and convincingly murmuring, 'Ooh, salmon, how lovely.'"

The Tyneside shipyard apprentices couldn't complain that they were eating farmed salmon, as we do today. But it was a clear case of the familiarity that breeds contempt. Given an overload of farmed salmon can we ever again feel the same excitement about eating the first wild salmon of the season?

Farmed salmon doesn't have a season, being available all the year round, but wild salmon does and it comes to a climax next month. The season actually began some two months ago and it was on a particularly cold and windy day at the end of March that I headed for the River Dee on a fact-finding mission in the company of the Swiss chef des cuisines at The Dorchester Hotel, Willi Elsener, and Lance Forman, whose London smokehouse is the leading supplier of smoked wild salmon.

Poached salmon on the River Dee, we soon discovered, is a very different kettle of fish from salmon poached at The Dorchester. The local recipe for poaching salmon, states Mr Dugald Jaffray, owner of the Banchory Lodge Hotel on the River Dee, requires at least four people: two to draw a net across the 150ft river, two others to keep a lookout for the bailiffs.

"The poachers are unlikely to see any bailiffs," growls Mr Jaffray. "They'll be drinking and playing cards." In season, he says, poachers can easily find a quiet spot on the 90-mile river (only nine bailiffs are available to patrol its whole length) and they may get away with perhaps a 100 salmon, raising anything from pounds l,000 to pounds 2,000 for a night's spoilsport.

Frankly, poachers are the least of the problem, Mr Jaffray concedes. He is one of dozens of hoteliers whose livelihood depends on rod-and-line salmon fishing for sport. They face a salmon crisis, for each year fewer salmon seem to able to find their way upriver to spawn and each year the salmon start to make their run later and later.

The Dee is traditionally the first Scottish river to open the salmon- fishing season, usually in February, but this year they delayed the start of the season until March, at the request of local conservation bodies.

Some hotels, like The Marcliffe at Pitfodels in Aberdeen, have been inviting their guests to subscribe to a voluntary code, taking only one fish a week and returning the others to the river. If a guest catches more, the hotel replaces them with farmed fish. It takes a very sporting sportsman to wear this, since they pay up to pounds 1,000 a rod for the privilege of joining the chase.

As it happened, the Dee salmon were in no danger from our party. Sweating in rubber gear fastened up to our armpits, we prowled the river bank urged on by gruff commands from the kind of ghillie who made Prince Charles the man he is today (Balmoral is barely 25 miles upstream). But it was in vain we tossed our nylon threads with their wisps of coloured fluff into the grey, racing current.

Surprisingly, they do manage to catch some 4,000 salmon a year by rod and line on the River Dee, but these are not the fish sought by professional consumers. Lance Forman, who buys 19,000 fish a year, mostly for smoking, gets his main supply from salmon netters on the coast.

The biggest netter on the Dee is Ron Christie, who operates from a granite headland just to the south of Aberdeen harbour (Aberdeen being the "aber" or mouth of the Dee). Here there is a conservation problem of a different sort.

Seals, says Mr Christie. Those lovely, sleek, doe-eyed swimmers, so beloved of animal rightists, are to salmon what foxes are to chickens. They get into Mr Christie's nets and, he says, kill for killing's sake. "The seals bite out the salmon's liver and leave the rest. Seals are a menace for us. They may be the naturalist's friend but they are not the fisherman's. They eat 140lbs of fish a day."

They are a particular menace early in the season, when the adult salmon, three years old or more, return from their feeding grounds off Greenland to seek the rivers where they themselves were spawned. They make a great sweep southwards into the North Sea, then turn towards the coast and nose their way north until some mysterious imprinting in their small brains tells them they are back at the Tweed or the Spey or the Dee.

We did get to see a wild salmon or two, and even to eat some. In taste there's no question that they are every bit as superior to a farmed salmon as a free-range chicken is to a battery one: the flavour more concentrated, the flesh firmer. But a startling truth was revealed. If you can't improve on the flavour of wild salmon, you can certainly ruin it, destroying both texture and flavour by overcooking. Willi Elsener was quick to spot this. There is a moment in the cooking of salmon, and indeed all fish, he says, when its rawness turns to a most melting softness. This is followed much too quickly by the critical moment when the delicious soft flesh turns to tough fibre. This is the point of no return, frankly. "The protein in the flesh hardens up," Elsener explains. It is exactly the same chemical function that occurs in the cooking of the white of an egg when the protein, at first liquid, becomes hard and rubbery.

Willi Elsener gauges doneness by eye and by touch, though he suggests you could use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the fish. It is cooked a point at 60 to 62 degrees centigrade, he says. But you would be advised to remove the fish from the grill, the poaching liquid or the steamer when it is at 52 to 55 degrees because even though it's taken from the heat, the inside of the fillet or steak continues to cook for the next three minutes or so, rising to the optimum 60 degrees. So that the outside of the fish doesn't cool too rapidly, he puts it on a warm plate covered with another or leaves it in the oven with the heat off and the door ajar.

Wild salmon are wildly expensive early in the season, but by June last year they were selling at a mere 20 per cent more than their farmed cousins, tremendous value. In one glorious week, says salmon smoker Lance Forman, they were actually costing less than farmed salmon.

Amazing? So few people can tell the difference, thinks Lance Forman, no more than they can tell Stork from butter, that chefs no longer feel the need to seek out the premium-priced fish. The chef can mask it with strong flavours.

To mask or to enhance, that is the question. Willi actually has plenty of time for good farmed salmon, which he says is fine when it is cooked properly (enhanced not masked), but wild salmon is still something very special, so he puts it on the menu for the summer when the prices come down; indeed, starting next week.

Here are three of Willi Elsener's salmon recipes from a book he is publishing in the autumn (A World of Flavours, Pavilion Books):

SALMON AND MUSSEL SOUP

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

2oz/50g shallots chopped

12 clove garlic

1lb 6oz/600g fresh mussels

7fl oz/200 ml dry white wine

1 oz/25g butter

2oz/50g white leek, cut into small cubes

112oz/40g carrots, peeled and cut into small cubes

1oz/25g fennel bulb, cut into small cubes

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

14fl.oz/400ml fish stock

10fl.oz/300ml double cream

salt, pepper, cayenne

5oz/150g fillet of salmon, cut into 12in/1cm cubes

12 teaspoon coriander leaves, finely chopped

First, prepare the mussels. Scrub each mussel individually under running water and remove the "beard" if necessary. Rinse twice more in fresh water to ensure that all the sand is removed. Discard any mussels that are not tightly closed.

To prepare the soup: heat the olive oil in a saucepan large enough to hold all the mussels. Add the chopped shallots and garlic. Cook for about 1 minute without colouring. Add the cleaned mussels and the white wine. Cover with a lid, bring to the boil and simmer gently for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Remove the mussels from the saucepan and pass the remaining stock through a very fine sieve. Put it to one side. Using only the mussels with open shells, remove them from their shells (except for 8 mussels in open shells that will be used as a garnish), and put them on one side. Discard any mussels with shells that stay firmly shut.

Now melt the butter in a saucepan and sweat the leek, carrot, fennel and turmeric powder for about 1 minute without colouring. Add the reserved mussel stock and the fish stock and bring to the boil. Add the cream and cook for about 5 minutes until a smooth consistency is obtained. Sea son with salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne.

Reduce the heat and add the salmon cubes and mussels, including the ones with shells. Stir gently. Simmer for 30 seconds. Add chopped coriander and serve.

POACHED SALMON

Willi Elsener's favourite way of simply poaching wild salmon steaks is to make a stock out of salmon bones, white wine, water and vege-tables and a minimal amount of herbs and spices to really intensify the flavour of the fish.

"Chop the bones coarsely, add the white wine, cold water, vegetables and herbs and spices, bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 15 minutes, then salt to taste. Add the salmon steaks, but keep below simmering point and poach for about 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness. This will give you a nice, full-flavoured moist salmon steak.

"I appreciate that it may not always be possible to obtain salmon bones, so use the same recipe as below if necessary. Remember, if you have steaks or fillets, put them into hot stock so that the pores of the fish are closed immediately and no flavour is lost.

"If you are thinking about poaching a whole fish, perhaps for a party, remember always start off with a cold stock. This needs to be prepared beforehand and the suggested ingredients are as follows to make about 2pints/

1 litre of stock."

1 onion

1 small carrot

1 small white leek cut into pieces

14 bayleaf

sprig of dill and thyme

4 crushed peppercorns

7fl oz/200 ml white wine

2pints/1 litre water

2 tablespoons salt.

Bring all the ingredients to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. When cold, place the whole fish in the stock and slowly bring to the boil. Reduce heat and poach.

Cooking times for a whole salmon: over 5lb - 8 minutes per lb; under 5lb - 10 minutes per lb; under 2lb - 15 minutes per lb

CRISPY SALMON AND POTATO CAKES, WITH TOMATO AND CORIANDER SALAD

Serves 1

(3 fishcakes)

4oz/120g salmon fillet

1 baking potato

1 pinch salt, pepper, nutmeg

1fl oz/25ml vegetable oil (for frying)

1 plum tomato

1 spring onion

10 coriander leaves

12 shallot, peeled and finely chopped

3fl oz/75ml vegetable oil (for dressing)

14 teaspoon vinegar

3 leaves Belgian endive

Preheat the oven to 300F/150C/Gas 2.

Remove the skin and bones from the salmon and then cut it into matchstick- size strips.

Peel and grate the potato, squeezing out any excess juice.

Mix the salmon and potato gently together and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Heat the oil in a non-stick pan.

Form the salmon and potato mixture into three cakes, about 2in/5cm in diameter and 12in/1cm thick. Pan-fry them slowly for 2-3 minutes, until they are golden brown. Remove them from the pan and bake them in the oven for a further 6 minutes.

Blanch, peel and de-seed the tomato and cut the flesh into strips.

Slice the spring onion and coriander and mix with the tomato. Mix the shallots, remaining oil and vinegar and season to taste.

Arrange the Belgian endive leaves on the plate in a star shape. Mix the tomato mixture with some of the dressing and arrange on the plate. Arrange the hot salmon cakes on the plate with the salad and serve. !

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