Up in smoke: The firm that lost out in the Olympics

The build-up to the 2012 Olympics is driving some businesses out of their prime locations. Matthew Beard talks to a fish smoker faced with starting all over again
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The Independent Online

As Lance Forman conducts a guided tour of his fish-smoking factory in a run-down industrial area of east London he stops in the middle of a refrigerated room to make a dramatic point.

Gesturing across the freezing-cold factory where each day hundreds of Scottish salmon are prepared by hand then smoked, destined for the finest menus in the land, he says: "This area would be right in the middle of the Olympic stadium."

The family-run Forman & Son, with a staff of 50, is the oldest salmon smokery in Britain and celebrates its centenary this year. But while busy concocting commemorative recipes to mark the occasion - such as salmon smoked with lemon and cinnamon - serious issues are at hand.

For the firm is one of 300 being forced out of the Lower Lea Valley so that the groundwork on the 2012 Games can begin.

"We'd be happy for the athletes to run around us, but there might be a problem when it comes to the javelin," says Mr Forman. Since London won the 2012 bid in July, his company, and others in the area, have faced the prospect of a forced move to make way for the Olympics.

It is yet another setback for the company founded in 1905 when Harris Forman arrived as a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe and set up a smokery in Stepney Green. The company has been based in the East End ever since.

Contrary to popular belief salmon smoking in the UK started not in Scotland but in London when immigrants copied the method used since the 19th century in eastern Europe, the London businesses initially using fish imported in barrels of brine from the Baltic. And Forman's was at the forefront of this.

The company's original recipe, still used today, was brought to Britain by Harris Forman. This tradition was continued by Louis Forman into the early 1960s and brought to many of the world's leading chefs by Marcel Forman. Lance, the current head of the business, has concentrated on developing the brand. Since earlier this year the company has been the only surviving salmon smokery in the East End.

They resisted the pull to Scotland in the 1970s when fish farming began, surviving in the south by adhering to traditional methods. The family scorns the mechanised mass-production adopted in Scotland opting instead for what they consider to be the superior "London cure" which is milder and more delicate.

At the factory, which stands out from its industrial surroundings with a salmon pink façade and a giant banner protesting their Olympic plight, a team of fish handlers starts work at 4am so the freshest fish can be served at lunchtime.

Whole salmon caught the day before are beheaded, de-scaled and filleted - chief filleter Terry can slice the backbone out of 120 fish in 20 minutes.

They are then lightly salted, losing 15 per cent of their weight, and hung in walk-in kilns where they are smoked over oak sawdust for 24 hours. A glass-fronted kiln designed at a cost of £30,000 to mark their centenary has had to be mothballed due to the company's forced relocation.

Forman's smoke a range of home-caught fish as well as imported tuna and marlin but their piece de resistance is smoked wild salmon, bought and frozen during the summer and defrosted and smoked throughout the year to satisfy demand. The wild variety costs £300 for a typical 3kg fish compared to £100 for the equivalent farmed variety.

A key part of the business is the kitchen where the chef Lloyd Hardwick, who established the restaurant at the Tate Modern gallery, oversees 50 luxury dishes such as lobster bisque, fish terrines and miso sauce.

With luxury produce, Forman's aims at the top end of the market, supplying Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, Harrods, lunches in City boardrooms and sushi to Nobu, Zuma and Yo Sushi. It also supplies hotels from Park Lane to Bangkok's Oriental and Sandy Lanes in Barbados. Ironically, when the British Olympic Association wanted to celebrate the Athens medal haul, Forman's flew out the athletes' sumptuous seafood buffet.

"It is a very special business" said Mr Foreman.

"We maintain artisans' skills, we export 30 per cent and we train people. It is just the sort of thing that should be encouraged. We need two years to relocate and the clock is ticking. It took us one-and-a-half years to get this place up and running - and that was with a ready-built factory which I am unlikely to get now."

Mr Forman is now heading a campaign for proper compensation for his and other businesses being pushed out by the Games, the majority of which are clustered on the Marshgate Lane industrial part site of the proposed 80,000-capacity Olympic stadium and athletes' village.

They have complained that Ken Livingstone's London Development Agency (LDA) has undervalued their land and that many of the alternative sites would put them at a disadvantage. With the bulldozers due to move in by July, they feel the time to act is fast approaching.

For Forman's, it is the latest in a series of recent difficulties. In 1998 the company was forced out of its factory by a fire, and they moved to new premises near their current site. But when the River Lea flooded they were on the move again - this time with grant aid through their current nemesis, the LDA, to the new site inside the proposed Olympic Park.

The Lower Lea Valley, with its contaminated waterways and skyline dominated by electricity pylons and car and rubble dumps, may not be the most prestigious address but many businesses rely on the fact that they are close to central London.

Forman & Son have been offered a site slightly further east, which is the "wrong" side of the busy Leighbridge Road as expected congestion due to Olympic works is likely to add significantly to delivery times to central London - and put the whole business at risk.

"Chefs in top London restaurants often do not know until midnight what stock they want for the following day. They will ring up and leave a message with their order and the fact that we can respond so quickly is key to our survival" says Foreman.

Three months after Sebastian Coe and his team pulled off their sensational defeat of Paris in Singapore, only around 20 of the companies based on the 500-acre plot of land have agreed to vacate the Olympics area. Meanwhile relations between the recently formed Marshgate Lane business group have gone from bad to worse. Advised by media lawyer Mark Stephens, the businesses wrote to the International Olympic Committee saying London's plans were flawed and they threatened to take the protest to the Singapore meeting.

Before a session of the London Assembly last month there were angry exchanges between Forman and Mike Lee, a director of London 2012, who accused the businesses of trying to wreck the bid. Once inside, a member of the group told Mr Livingstone that his "land grab" made him no better than Robert Mugabe.

They complained that their requests for information from the LDA were not being answered and that letters to sports minister Richard Caborn and Olympics minister Tessa Jowell had not even been acknowledged. Meanwhile London 2012 chairman Lord Coe, whose Canary Wharf offices practically overlook the site, has not yet visited to hear business concerns.

The two sides seem incapable of agreeing on the issues. The businesses claim that 11,000 jobs in the area will go while the LDA says that a more realistic figure is 5,000 for the number of full-time employees currently based there. Local firms are holding out saying they want valuations that reflect rising property prices while Neale Coleman, the mayor's Olympics advisor has challenged them to go valuation tribunals to test their claim.

Meanwhile some of the 170 business on Fish Island, a largely industrial plot which takes its name from the surrounding network of waterways, claim that they are being moved as much for the future value of their land as for the fact that they occupy an area earmarked for a temporary car park - an allegation firmly denied by the LDA. "Given all the land that needs to be bought it would be absurd for the LDA to be trying to buy a single square foot of land that was not absolutely needed to deliver the Olympics" said Mr Coleman.

At a meeting tomorrow between the LDA and the affected businesses some of these issues may be resolved. In the meantime, Mr Forman, like many of the businesses was eager to stress that he is not against the Olympics. "I am a fan of the Olympics," he says. "But I must be concerned about my livelihood. When the bid was won in Singapore they had television pictures of children dancing in the streets of Stratford. On the same day when I got home my kids asked me: 'Daddy does this mean you don't have a job.'"

On the Move?

Travellers, EAST END

Thirty-two traveller families in the East End will be uprooted. A dozen families have been living at Clays Lane in Newham for more than 30 years. It is a similar story for more than 20 families living at Waterden Crescent in Hackney

East Marsh, HACKNEY MARSHES

Hackney Marshes, the largest expanse of football fields in Europe, will become a coach park, which will destroy rare trees and disturb wildlife in a nearby conservation area

Sortex, LOWER LEA VALLEY

Swiss-owned Sortex, which employs 140 to make sorting machines for catering, is the biggest employer to be moved out of the Lower Lea Valley. It won the UK National Business Award in 2004 and the Queen's Award For Export and Import

Church, HACKNEY

Kingsway International Christian Centre, Europe's largest independent church, occupies a 9.5-acre site, with a 4,000-seat auditorium and attracts 12,000 worshippers. It has offered to build a £36m arena and vacate during the period of the Games

Art Deco Theatre, DALSTON

Built in the 1820s, it has housed a circus, theatre, nightclub, cinema and car auction house. Praised by English Heritage, but likely to be demolished to build a Tube line

FH Brundle, BOW

The family-run steel components company FH Brundle, which employs 40, must move to make way for temporary tennis facilities. Richard Brundle says he was offered £800,000 an acre but neighbouring residential land is valued at £6m.

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