Magazine article The Spectator

Fishy Business

Magazine article The Spectator

Fishy Business

Article excerpt

At a House of Commons cocktail party I suddenly noticed a friend's face contorted like 'The Scream' of Edvard Munch. Could it be yet more bad news for Labour? No, she was being offered a plate of smoked salmon, probably her thousandth munch for the year. I entirely sympathised; the stuff usually served up is fatty and tasteless. But now that the fishing season is upon us, you can do something about it.

Salmon was once so plentiful in the British Isles that a medieval journeyman's contract specified it would be on the workshop inhouse menu no more than three times a week. In modern times, c.1960, salmon stocks began to be fished out; in place of the angler landing salmon on its home voyage to spawn, dragnet operations now occurred at sea; the rivers themselves became lethally polluted. Thus the birth of the fish farm.

Not all, but most, are nefarious. Like chickens in industrialised cages, the fish are cramped together tightly; they get fat from lack of exercise and the junk-food they are fed; they develop parasites.

The first rule for buying smoked salmon is therefore to spend money on quality; if the flesh of the fish is firm, chances are the farm is good. In Britain, excellent farmed salmon is widely available via H. Forman and Son, which also trades as Forman and Field; you find it in Waitrose or by direct mail order.

High-quality salmon can also be mailed from small enterprises in Scotland like MacGilvray; if ordering online, you want to make sure the advertising bumpf says that the farmed fish accords with RSPCA standards.

Wild smoked salmon costs much more, and is tastier, for reasons which partly have to do with the smoking process itself. There are two ways to smoke a fish: hot and cold.

In the hot version, the flesh actually cooks; in the cold version, tars in wood smoke coat the beast's surface, both killing off bacteria and sealing the salmon so that its fat does not turn rancid. With wild salmon, the sea is sealed in.

Matters get more subtle, depending on the wood used to generate the smoke.

Traditional British methods use oak, sometimes from chipped-up whisky barrels;

Americans are more prone to smoke salmon with hickory chips. The cure can be long and strong, or short and light -- the latter often called 'London cure'. …

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