IT'S ONLY 20 years since smoked salmon was a barely affordable luxury. But much water has passed under many overcrowded farmed salmon cages since then.
The kind of smoked salmon that was such an unspeakable luxury once was, of course, wild Scottish salmon, caught by net or rod and line. Today, 99 per cent of it is from farmed salmon plucked from densely crowded cages in Scottish lochs.
To be honest, no one claims it is as tasty as wild smoked salmon which, when you can get it, may cost twice as much. The best smoked farm salmon can be reasonably pleasant but, unfortunately, the worst is terrible: fatty, flabby and smelly. But how are we to know from looking at a pack? We aren't.
We arranged a tasting of 24 products, enlisting the aid of the Scottish Salmon Smokers' Association, who are anxious to protect the public from inferior products, some allegedly processed from cheap imported Norwegian-farmed salmon. All are available by mail order; we tasted them alongside smoked salmon from five leading supermarkets.
The salmon was judged by colour, which ranged from pale rose to reddish-brown; by smell, from agreeable woodsmoke to kippery over-curing; by saltiness, sweetness and texture, which varied from the feel of slimy, rubbery, wet ham to a buttery, silky, smooth chewiness. We did find some clear winners (see panel) but our panel of 12 tasters felt that the overall results were disappointing. Farmed salmon is no substitute for the real thing if you can afford it.
'Wild salmon is a better product,' said one of the tasters, Adrian Barratt, a quality assurance officer with the Seafish Industry Authority. 'It swims an awful lot of miles, so it has muscle development and that gives it good texture. Its fat content is better all round. Farmed fish get very little exercise.'
The biggest users of smoked salmon are hotels and restaurants. So we enlisted the support of the magazine Inside Hotels, which produced a panel of expert chefs, together with some gurus from the industry itself. Alerted by a warning in Which? that some food by post could contain poisonous bacteria, they binned two samples that seemed seriously 'off'.
Straight out of the chilled cabinet, few of the samples had a noticeable smell at first but afer half an hour the better ones began to smell rich, sweet and smoky, and the worst gave off the odour of sour, stale kippers. Of five leading supermarkets represented at the tasting, Sainsbury's was the only one to get into the top ten, so it proves that choosing smoked salmon by mail order, carefully of course, may be the better bet. But why should this be?
According to Henrietta Green, author of the Food Lovers' Guide to Britain, the over-production of salmon has led to something of a crisis in the industry. She believes that it is approaching a similar point to the one chicken farmers reached when they flooded the market with battery birds pumped full of chemicals.
Salmon farmers are using chemicals to the same effect. 'Fish are overcrowded,' she says, 'prone to disease, and fed on antibiotics. Waters surrounding the cages are fast becoming polluted, due to the discharge of wastes and chemicals. The market prices are tumbling because there are just too many fish. And to top it all, farmed salmon is often an inferior product which can lack complex taste and the firm lean texture of its wild cousin.'
However, there is a way forward, she says. She takes as examples two companies, Ghillie & Glen in Scotland and Glenarm in Northern Ireland, which have done something about the density of fish in the cages, setting them in open sea sites and thus allowing the salmon to swim against tides. A Glenarm salmon swims 9,000 miles a year within its cage, a distance comparable to that swum by a wild salmon.
'The result is a fitter fish,' says Henrietta Green, 'with better-textured, leaner flesh that has improved eating qualities and it is achieved at a far smaller cost to the environment.'
It seems Ms Green is right. Of the 24 samples tasted blind, Ghillie & Glen was first equal, and also first choice of no fewer than six of the panellists. Glenarm, which also made the top ten, was the first choice of one taster; another thought it might have done better if it wasn't knackered after swimming 9,000 miles.
The tasting panel included four chefs, Paul Gayler from The Lanesborough, Hyde Park, Murdo MacSween, Oakley Court, Windsor, Andrew Magson, Cafe Fish, Haymarket, and Simon Traynor, Park Lane Hotel, as well as Neil Pitcairn, fish buyer from Harvey Nichols, Adrian Barratt of the Seafish Industry Authority, Norman Maclean, Scottish Salmon Smokers' Association, with Lisa Bernard and Fiona Sims, editor and deputy editor of Inside Hotels.
These were the 10 considered by the panel to be the very best.
1= GHILLIE & GLEN Deep coral colour, with a mild saltiness balanced against subtle smokiness, buttery and creamy teture. 200g pounds 6.50, 1kg pounds 26.85, inc p&p, polystyrene box. Burghmuir Drive, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire AB51 4FS, tel: 0467 625700.
1= ALLAN & DEY LTD OF ABERDEEN Very strong oaky smell and taste, not too salty, moist, slightly oily but good texture. 1lb (pre-sliced) pounds 16.05 inc p&p; 1 1/2 lb (whole side unsliced) pounds 20.15 inc p&p. Available from The Hamper People, Strumpshaw, Norwich NR13 4AG, tel: 0603 713937.
3 H FORMAN AND SON Dark appearance, mildly smoky aroma, balanced and tasty,
neither too salty nor too smoky. 1lb (two 8oz packs) pounds 14.95, 1 1/2 lb pre-sliced pounds 18.95, inc p&p, packed in polystyrene boxes. 6 Queen's Yard, White Post Lane, Hackney, London E9 5EN, tel: 081-985 0378.
4 SAINSBURY'S ISLE OF SKYE Consistent good marks with all panellists. Opaque pink colour, thinly sliced, very mild, sweet, creamy. 115g pounds 3.99, 230g pounds 7.48, 400g pounds 11.45.
5= SCOTTISH EAGLE. Pale appearance and a fresh oaky smell, quite salty, chewy. An 8oz pack pounds 7.95, 1lb pounds 14.95, inc p&p, packed in polystyrene. Severals Farm, Wicken Road, Arkesden, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 4EY, tel: 0799 550143.
5= MINOLA Fresh-looking, very strong smoked character, salty, rather dry texture. 8oz pounds 8.40, 1lb pounds 14.20, inc p&p. Kencot Hill Farmhouse, Filkins, Lechlade, Gloucestershire, GL7 3QY, tel: 0367 860391.
7 INVERAWE SMOKEHOUSES Thinly sliced, very pronounced oak smoke character. 8oz pounds 8.95, 1lb pounds 15.60, inc p&p, polystyrene packing. Taynuilt, Argyll, PA35 1HU. tel: 08662 446.
8 GLENARM Pale rose in colour, with a mild, delicate smokiness and slightly slippery texture. 8oz pounds 5.95, 1lb pounds 11.25, including p&p, polystyrene packed. Severn & Wye, Walmore Hill, Minsterworth, Gloucester, Gloucestershire, GL2 8LA, tel: 0452 750777.
9 LOCH FYNE. Good colour, sweetish smell, good smoke, rather dry. Two 8oz packets pounds 17.40, or one unsliced side of salmon 1 3/4 to 2lb pounds 23.75, including pounds 5 immediate 'next day' delivery service. Ardkinglas, Cairndow, Argyll PA26 8BH, tel: 04996 217.
10 SCOTTISH KING Gleaming pink, salty, very strong smoke flavour, oily texture. 1lb pounds 14.50, 1 1/2 lb pounds 16.75, inc p&p, in presentation box. Dundee Street, Letham, by Forfar, Angus DD8 2PQ, tel: 0307 818 458/725.
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