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Food & Drink: First catch a fish, then bury it: You can make gravadlax the traditional way, or the easy way, says Peter Berg

'OH, NO, mummy, not salmon again]' was probably a regular cry at teatime in the north of Sweden in the old days when the rivers were jumping with fish at this time of year. But the season did not last long, and smoking and pickling were ways of preserving this abundance for the months when nature was less bountiful.

Gravadlax, which means 'buried salmon', has come to be regarded as a delicacy, but it is easy to prepare at home and, with salmon one of the less expensive fish on the market, makes an attractive starter at a budget price.

The traditional way of doing it is roughly as follows: collect the ashes from a log fire for a week or two - silver birch ash is best. Catch and clean a salmon weighing about 10lb. Cut off the head, halve the fish lengthways and remove the backbone and other long bones.

Dig a trench about a foot deep in the garden in a place where the soil is well drained. This will be the salmon's 'grave' and should accommodate the fish comfortably, with a margin of a few inches all round.

Fill the trench to a depth of 3in with a mixture of wood ash and coarse salt in a ratio of 3:1. Place one half of the salmon, skin side down, in the trench on the ash mixture, and cover with chopped dill, crushed black peppercorns, sugar and more coarse salt. Put the other half of the fish carefully on top, applying pressure to ensure a close fit. Cover the fish with the remaining ash mixture and fill the trench with soil, tread in and place a rock on top to protect the grave from robbers such as cats, foxes or bears - said to be very partial to gravadlax. Go about your ordinary business for a week or so, fortified by the thought of the delicacy waiting for you at the bottom of the garden.

Do not leave it too long, however, especially if the weather is warm, as decay soon sets in despite the preserving effect of the wood ash. When you think your salmon is ready, dig it up, clean it, and serve in thin slices together with a mustard sauce and new potatoes boiled with plenty of dill. A glass of well-chilled aquavit, with cool lager to quench the thirst, are the correct accompaniments.

So there you are, that is how they made gravadlax in the old days, and no doubt the result was very good indeed. Fortunately, however, there are quicker ways of doing it today. I get the best results using a thick middle cut from a large salmon - a piece weighing 2-3lb. It needs to be cleaned and boned with care, and divided in half. The pickling mix consists of three tablespoons of salt with one tablespoon of sugar, half a teaspoon of saltpetre and one teaspoon of coarsely crushed black peppercorns.

If the gravadlax is to be eaten within a couple of days, the saltpetre may be omitted. I make a nest for the fish using aluminium foil in a shallow oval pie dish. This is covered with ample quantities of roughly chopped fresh dill sprinkled with one tablespoon of the salt mixture. One half of the salmon is then put in this nest, skin side down, covered with more salt and dill, and the other half placed on top with the thick section over the thin section of the lower piece. The upper skin is spread with the remaining salt and dill, and the foil folded over and sealed to form a neat


I then put a 2lb weight on top and leave the fish to cure in our cool cellar for 24 hours, turning the parcel over a couple of times. You could use the fridge, but it should not be too cold as this inhibits the process of absorption and curing. Drain, scrape away the salt and dill, and slice thick or thin, according to taste. The skin, by the way, need not be wasted - it can be deep fried in narrow strips to provide a crispy garnish.

The traditional mustard sauce is actually a kind of dressing. You can make it using Dijon mustard if the Swedish sort is unavailable: mix one tablespoon with one tablespoon of caster sugar and two of vinegar, and then add gradually 7fl oz olive oil, using a blender. Finally, mix in at least a tablespoon of chopped fresh dill.