Salmon has gone from nobility to ubiquity, and all in around 30 years. Once, a whole poached fish would be the centrepiece of a banquet. Now fillets are popped under the grill without a second thought.
Since the 1970s, fish farms have brought us ever-cheaper salmon, undercutting the more expensive wild salmon with aggressive pricing (wild fish now accounts for just 1 per cent of the UK market). But the farmed produce has not always been gladly received. There have been a catalogue of concerns. Antibiotics and chemicals are often used to prevent disease when the fish are packed into confined areas. Deprived of their natural diet of prawns, the salmon are given artificial colouring to turn their flesh pink. And some farms boost the oil content of the feed to promote fast growth, resulting in fatty fish.
All of which has left the UK's salmon a pale imitation of its former self. Nick Nairn, the Scottish celebrity chef, has been one of the industry's many critics, blaming overcrowding in the cages for the poor quality, along with the producers who were sucked into a price war against imports from Chile and Norway, rather than competing on quality. "Scottish standards dropped in the mid-1990s when they were fighting off cheap Norwegian imports," he says. "It became too cheap, dropping to £1 a pound. They were selling it for less than it cost to produce. You knew it by the tell-tale fat."
But now, says Nairn, it's time to look, and cook, again. This change of heart happened when he came across organic fish from Shetland and Orkney. "The Scottish are learning that it's a waste of time producing cheap fish," says Nairn. "But supermarkets will do what the customer says, so the customer's demands for quality has a big part to play. Ordinary salmon is around £2.20 a pound but for organic you pay a premium, around £3.50 a pound. When you taste the difference, you realise it's twice as good."
Scottish Quality Salmon, an agency which represents 65 per cent of the farmers, is quick to emphasise the quality of its produce, pointing out that it is regulated by no fewer than 10 statutory bodies. Standards of its Tartan Quality Mark salmon are so high that it meets the stringent French Label Rouge criteria, making them the only non-French food producers to qualify.
The quest for high quality led to the pioneering of organic salmon farming. The changes satisfy many of the major concerns, including the most important of all: taste. The spokesmen are emphatic. "We stock the cages at half the density common to the rest of the industry," says John Clarke, Orkney Development Officer. "And they are sited in a vigorous tidal flow so the fish live active lives – currents never drop below four miles an hour. And our feeds are low in oil content. Our salmon gain muscle, not fat."
"We include shrimp shell in the feed to get colour because we can't use artificial colouring," says Denis Overton, chief executive of Aquascot, a major salmon producer which supplies most major supermarkets, "but it also makes the flesh taste sweeter."
Maybe, at last, fish farms have started to deliver what they always promised – an abundant supply of affordable, high-quality produce. If you need any more encouragement to try organic salmon, take a look at Nick Nairn's Top 100 Salmon Recipes, the chef's new book. Nairn extends the fish's uses far beyond the usual cannon of smoked, poached or grilled – always with a wedge of lemon, of course. Quality fish may have returned, but we haven't turned the clock back to a time when that simply poached beastie would wow party guests. Try the recipe for beer-battered salmon as fish and chips – a great use for salmon tails, which are often sold off cheap. That recipe and two others from the book are printed on page 37. They should make you want to dip your toe back in the water.
'Nick Nairn's Top 100 Salmon Recipes' is published by BBC Books, priced £9.99Reuse content