FOOD / Taming the King of the Ocean: Farmed Shetland salmon will survive the slick. But it needs culinary extras wild fish do not, says Michael Bateman

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SHETLAND salmon has been having a rough ride in London's New Billingsgate fish market. When a porter wheeled in a stack of polystyrene boxes tagged with SSQC (Shetland Seafood Quality Control) labels, there were shouts: 'Any signs of oil?' The porter prised open a corner: 'Without a dipstick, mate, it's difficult to tell.'

But it now looks as if the bulk of the pounds 45m industry in the Shetlands, a quarter of all Scotland's, will be spared. The violent seas which first threw the oil tanker Braer on the rocks of Sumburgh Head have dispersed the slick, leaving the majority of the salmon farms, 100 miles to the north, unaffected.

The crisis has focused attention on the enormous scale of salmon farming, an extremely modern industry which in 10 years has come from almost nothing to nearly pounds 200m worth of business a year.

The salmon industry has had more than its fair share of critics. Beauty lovers object to the steel and net cages which interrupt the view across almost every inlet and loch on the west coast of Scotland, and every voe, as they call them, in the Shetlands. The possible threat to wildlife from chemicals used to control disease among densely bred fish concerns environmentalists, not to mention the pollutant effect of fish faeces that build up around the cages. Fish farmers are well used to criticism, and point out that salmon are highly sensitive to stress. If they were careless their valuable investment would be doomed.

Some caring farmers take welfare to an extraordinary degree. For example, farmed salmon are prone to sea lice, which attach themselves to the slime at the tail end of the fish and work their way towards the head. Rather than use chemical treatments, the farmers have turned to nature and now stock their cages with goldfish-sized golden wrasse to act as beauticians, cleaning off the lice. Divers who catch the wrasse under water get pounds 2 a fish.

So much for welfare, but are farmed salmon really worth the eating? Aren't they the battery chickens of the sea?

In the early stages of salmon farming, food critics loudly voiced their objection that farmed salmon could never taste as good as wild salmon. But breeding and the quality of feeding have improved over the years and these days we critics are bleating in the wind. Farmed salmon still tastes to me dull and

fatty, and I happen to think wild salmon tastes at least 10 times better. But cooked in a way which disguises its dullness, it's hard to tell.

What about the colour? Aren't the fish fed a xanthin colouring to produce that desirable salmon-pink colour? Yes, but xanthin is a naturally occurring carotene pigment which gives shrimps this colour, and it is a diet of shrimps which gives wild salmon their blush; you sometimes find a cod with a pinkish glow. In the Baltic, salmon are white-fleshed due to a lack of shrimp in the diet.

In any case, wild salmon are few and far between, and prohibitively expensive. The new season for Scottish salmon opens in eight days' time (the season runs from February to August). But these authentic Kings of the Ocean, with their brilliant red and black spots, will fetch around pounds 12 a pound.

Farmed salmon, by contrast, cost pounds 3 to pounds 4 a pound, less than the cost of turbot, halibut, and sometimes less than cod and haddock. So, if you can't beat the farmed salmon industry, and for price you can't, you might as well join them.

My main complaint about the farmed fish is that it is fatty, and if it's not fresh, it becomes flabby and dull. Fishmongers agree. It keeps up to one week in cold storage before it begins to deteriorate.

The secret of cooking salmon is to keep it moist. An unlikely source of information on this front is Baroness Thatcher, who put her finger on the problem during a lunch for magazine editors at London's Le Meridien hotel. 'This is very good, it is so moist,' she told a colleague of mine. 'You know, salmon is often dry when you cook it.' (In France the president gave Paul Bocuse the Legion d'Honneur after he'd prepared a satisfactory state banquet; Le Meridien's chef, David Chambers, is still waiting. We publish his recipe for juicy, moist, pastry-wrapped salmon.)

The best way with wild salmon, if you can get hold of it, is to grill or poach it simply, serving it hot with a buerre blanc (acidulated butter sauce) or cold as a salmon mayonnaise. But a farmed salmon needs a bit of help, and Tessa Haywards, author of The Salmon Cookbook (it was published last year by Ebury Press, pounds 16.99), suggests the application of assertively flavoured sauces. Bitter-sweet flavours offset the fattiness of farmed fish; none better, she believes, than the bitter-sweet flavours of red vermouth or red peppers (see her sauces, left). But if her flavourings are unorthodox, that's nothing to some of her cooking techniques.

Her most outrageous suggestion has to be poaching a whole salmon in the dishwasher. This is a method, she says, that she once heard Prue Leith describe, but now finds used in parts of Scotland.

Isn't this rather like the famous Keith Floyd grilled steak, wrapped in foil, which he cooks under the bonnet of his car as he drives along; in his old banger, 60 miles at 35 mph, or in the Bentley, 10 miles at 70 mph?

It's a perfectly serious method, Mrs Hayward insists, and she's tried it. Cook the fish with butter, lemon slices, herbs and a splash of white wine. You must be careful to wrap it in three layers of foil and plastic, and of course don't put in washing powder.

'A 5lb fish cooks perfectly on the one-and- a-half hour cycle at 150F, 60C. The dishwasher creates a nice steamy atmosphere, it's never boiling.' When the cycle is finished, open the door and leave 15 minutes. If the fish is to be eaten hot, cut a corner of the wrapping to drain juices, open up, skin and serve with juices. If cold, leave to cool before opening. Then skin, and if you like, bone it.

David Chambers' Salmon with Lobster Mousse

Cooked in a parcel of pastry, the salmon is creamy, juicy, moist and pink. The spinach leaf prevents the pastry getting damp during the cooking.

Serves 6

6 fillets of salmon (about 5oz each)

boned and skinned

1 1/2 lb puff pastry

8oz raw lobster meat

or uncooked scampi

1/2 pint double cream

2 eggs, separated

1 1/2 oz butter

1lb young spinach

For the julienne:

1 carrot, 1 stem celery,

1 small leek (white part only),

2oz piece of celeriac, 1 small turnip

For the glaze: yolk of one egg, beaten

salt, cayenne and pepper

Cut the pastry into six pieces, and roll out thinly to make wrappings about 8in by 5in. Chill for one hour.

Blanch the spinach leaves in boiling water quickly, mop dry, and spread out. Peel and cut the vegetables into julienne (thin matchstick) shapes, plunge into boiling salted water for 1 minute, drain and mop dry. Season.

For the mousse: in a blender, using bowl and blades which have been chilled in the deep freeze, mix the flesh of lobster or scampi and butter. Blend egg whites one at a time slowly, then the yolks. In a chilled bowl, preferably over ice, beat in the cream. Season with salt, cayenne and pepper. Chill in freezer for 30 minutes to firm up.

Assemble parcels as follows. Put a fillet of salmon on each piece of puff pastry. Divide the lobster mousse into six, and put a piece on top of each fillet, adding a dab of julienne vegetables. Cover with the spinach leaves. Wet the edges of the pastry with beaten egg yolk, wrap around and seal. Brush the top with egg yolk. Transfer carefully to an oiled baking tray.

Bake in oven preheated to 400F/200C/Gas 7 for 10 minutes. Then lower the heat to 300F/150C/Gas 2 and cook for another 10 minutes.

Martini Rosso Sauce for Cold Salmon

Blend together 2 tablespoons of red Martini, 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon paprika powder, half a teaspoon of Dijon vinegar, a pinch of cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Then whisk in a quarter of a pint of double cream.

RED PEPPER SAUCE FOR HOT OR COLD SALMON

Quarter a deseeded red pepper, then grill it until it is charred. Leave it to cool, then skin and chop. In a blender, mix together with 1 teaspoon of tomato puree, 1 teaspoon of paprika powder, salt and pepper and 1/4 pint of plain yoghurt.

If you are making a cold sauce mix these ingredients together in a blender. For a hot sauce, add the yoghurt off the heat, after you have warmed the

other ingredients in a saucepan.

(Photograph omitted)

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