The British Heritage Feast marking the start of the recent conference of Slow Food UK Convivium leaders was a tour de force of traditions old and new. An inevitable, and delightful, feature was wild smoked salmon, albeit in the form of an innovative pâté. This being London, the salmon, while originating in Scottish waters, had been subjected to a traditional mild London cure by the oldest established salmon smokers in Britain, H. Forman and Son, founded nearly a century ago.
Lance Forman’s company is also the last of the original ‘East End’ salmon smokers; while the tradition of smoking salmon as a means of preserving fish had existed for centuries in Scotland and Ireland; the first commercial enterprise was in fact introduced by East European immigrants, appropriately enough in the East End of London. Indeed, the first salmon for commercial smoking was imported from the Baltic, until the smokers realized that finely textured, flavorful fish was caught in Scottish waters. Refrigerated transportation allowed the fish to arrive at southern smokeries in prime condition; here it could be subjected to light salting and smoking to produce a delicacy of considerable finesse.
That Forman’s is thriving is due partly to recent growth in appreciation and demand for a natural, traditionally treated, fine-flavored product—Lance dates the surge in demand, of some 20-%-30%, to five years ago—and in no small part to a business sense that sees the value in dealing also with vastly less expensive farmed fish, the bread and butter of the industry. But is this not shortsighted policy? The World Wildlife Fund and Atlantic Salmon Federation have just accused the Scottish Executive of failing to act with the necessary urgency to preserve wild salmon stocks, laying the blame firmly at the door of Scottish fish farming, which it claims spreads disease, sea lice infestation, and interbreeding. Meanwhile, the Marine Conservancy Society of the UK is recommending a moratorium on wild salmon consumption.
The moral, conservation-conscious path, then, would seem to be that neither farmed nor wild salmon should be consumed, whether smoked or otherwise. Leaving aside the question of resultant mass unemployment, what then happens to that equally invaluable and irreplaceable resource, the skill involved in selecting, curing and smoking the finest fish? Lance is, understandably, unrepentant about ensuring the survival of his family business, and of the quality-driven processes of dry salting and hanging to dry (both of which result in moisture/weight loss), followed by gentle brick-kiln smoking, which Forman’s applies to farmed as well as wild salmon. More controversially, he points the finger of blame for any reduction in wild fish stocks to the burgeoning seal population—300,000 the UK currently has the highest grey seal density on the planet—which remains unculled. An increasing number of the wild salmon he receives carry paw-marks and seal-induced bruising (the pâtés are a good means of using wild stock too damaged to be sold as whole sides)
And he has nothing but contempt for a recent move brokered by the Environment Agency and Icelandic vodka distiller Orri Vigfusson to buy out the vast majority of Northeast coast drift-net salmon fishermen via a £3.4 million deal, much of it raised by private owners of riverbanks. Hailed by the Agency as ‘an important conservation measure’, the scheme was openly set in motion two years ago to improve sport on the Tweed. As the fisheries minister declared at the time: “This is a big commitment from the Government for supporting angling as a sport”. The true interests being served are those of wealthy landowners hosting fishing tourism (and of the seals, whose feed stocks will grow all the richer).
It is this kind of move that Lance sees as the biggest threat to traditional wild salmon smoking, and with immediate effect. The past few years have seen plentiful stock of wild fish for the smokeries, the premium price of the product regulating demand and thus size of catch. Whatever the effect of fish farming on wild stocks, there have been enough prime specimens of wild salmon to keep the smokery busy. But what will happen this year, let alone a hundred years hence? Lance waits to find out, with apprehension and not a little anger.
If you want to sample the unique product, lean, slightly gamey, yet creamy textured and subtly smoked, before it disappears, your best bet is London’s premium restaurants, such as the Dorchester, the Savoy or Wilton’s, or the so-called ‘top shops’: Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason, at all of which the fish is skillfully hand carved to order. A number of pre-sliced, vacuum-sealed packs are available in good delis both in Britain and abroad (Italy and the USA import at present). Hand carving is undoubtedly the inextricable, final part of the tradition, and a role you can proudly take on yourself; one of life’s ultimate experiences must be to secure a side of genuine, wild smoked salmon, still warm and crusty from the smokery and cut a fresh slice at the pitch of perfection. Even done this way, it’s not going to be a cheap choice, nor devoid of worry about the politics of provision: what kind of price should we pay to preserve fine tradition?
Silvia Davidson is a London-based food writer. She is a member both of the Slow Food London steering committee and of the Soil Association.