Prices are soaring and as Anne Shooter reveals, some brands are resorting to unsavoury short-cuts…
When I was a girl, as a special treat my Booba (who was rather sophisticated) would take me to Brownstein’s delicatessen in Gant’s Hill to buy smoked salmon.
Joe, the old man in the white coat, would slice the fish with expert precision, interleaving each long, slender strip with greaseproof paper.
Later, with strong tea served through a strainer into porcelain cups for the grown-ups, and lemonade in a cut-glass tumbler for me, she would serve the salmon with its beautiful, sunset hue, on crustless brown bread triangles, evenly spread with butter.
Thirty years on and smoked salmon is no longer an occasional treat. Today, thanks to salmon suppliers going to extraordinary lengths to keep their product competitively priced, often at the expense of taste and quality, it is available in every supermarket for the same price as a box of cereal.
“Rather than using wild salmon from Scotland, we now have the much fattier farmed salmon, and there is no comparison,” says Chris Leftwich, chief inspector to The Fishmongers’ Company.
Still smoking top-quality salmon the traditional way is Lance Forman, of H. Forman& Son, whose family business has been in the East End of London since 1905. He supplies Fortnum & Mason and The Savoy.
“Smoked salmon was a gourmet product that came about to preserve Scottish wild salmon, the king of fish,” he says. “But now mass production has taken over the industry.
“Forty five per cent of the salmon sold in the UK now is Norwegian, which is OK in itself, but how long does it take for a fish to get from Norway to the factory? Three days minimum. No wonder it tastes bad.”
One problem is “Country of Origin” means where the food last went through a “substantial change”. So if it’s Norwegian salmon, but smoked in Scotland, the manufacturer can state the country of origin as Scotland.
“In England, we are strict about how the fish are killed, but in some farms in Norway fish are killed cruelly, then they’re filleted by machine,” Lance says.
Lance who smokes only wild or top-quality farmed salmon, says while he cures salmon by sprinkling it with salt to draw out the water, others use brine injections to avoid weight loss, which give a salty taste, but wet texture.
Forty five per cent of the salmon sold in the UK now is Norwegian, which is OK in itself, but how long does it take for a fish to get from Norway to the factory? Three days minimum. No wonder it tastes bad.”
He talks of liquid smoke being sprayed on fish “like a spray tan” rather than smoking it gently for 24 hours. And, he says, many suppliers cure with sugar, which retains moisture, covers up the taste from salt injections and counterbalances the bitterness of fierce smoking or the liquid smoke “tan”.
Then there is the pellicle. This is the crusty layer formed during smoking on the outside of the fish, which Lance says should always be removed.
“It reduces the weight of the fish, though, which means it sells for less,” says Lance. “So some smoked salmon still has it on and it is revolting.”
Other smoked salmon contains brown meat, which comes from blood vessels. It has a more fishy taste and tends to go off more quickly. It would never be served in a good restaurant.
However, many supermarkets incorporate it with the pellicle to add weight and price.
After the news last week that the price of salmon is to rise after Norway’s harsh winter, I’m determined to make sure I’m getting value for money.
So I decided to put the supermarket selections to the test:
H. Forman & Son Smoked Scottish Salmon (Waitrose), £5.99 for a 125g pack, £4.80 for 100g
MADE with Scottish farmed salmon and salt. Smoked salmon just how I remember it. Long, elegant slices, cut so thinly they are translucent. This is moist but not too fatty and very mildly salty with a hint of smoke. Soft and utterly delicious. A beautiful thing. 5/5
Ocado Oak-Smoked Salmon, £4.95 for 200g or three packs for £10, £2.48 per 100g
FARMED in Scotland and Norway, made with salmon, salt and sugar. The pellicle and brown meat is still attached. The salmon is flabby and wet and the slices are thick. Truly horrible. 0/5
Ocado says: “We leave the pellicle on to cater for more traditional consumers. The salmon is produced in England by an artisan supplier and smoked in a kiln using oak from sustainable sources.”
Heston from Waitrose Lapsang Souchong Tea-Smoked Salmon, £4.49 for 100g
CONTAINS Scottish farmed salmon, sea salt and sugar (the tea is used to create smoke). The texture of this isn’t bad, although the pellicle has been retained, but it tastes of tobacco. It isn’t pleasant to eat. 2/5
Waitrose says: “Our cold smoke process takes 10 to 15 hours, so the pellicle is, in fact, just a slightly firmer edge that we think is an important part of the product.”
Young’s Scottish Smokehouses Smoked Salmon Slices, £10 for 300g‚ on offer for £5, £1.66 for 100g (Waitrose and Ocado)
CONTAINS smoked salmon “from Scotland or Norway” and salt. This has a horrible texture, it is too soft and breaks when you try to pick it up. It has fatty white stripes and is greasy with no smoke taste. 0/5
Young’s says: “Our salmon is smoked in Scotland with real wood smoke. We do not inject brine; we either dry or wet salt the salmon in the traditional way.”
Kinvara Organic Irish Salmon, £6.65 for 150g, £4.43 for 100g (Waitrose and kinvarasmokedsalmon.com)
MADE from Irish organic salmon and sea salt. This has lovely, long slices and no fatty white lines, though it does have some brown ‘meat’ attached and a jelly-like texture I wasn’t keen on. Good flavour, though, and at last a salmon cured traditionally without sugar! 3/5
Tesco Finest Scottish Smoked Salmon with lemon and peppercorns, £5 for 120g, two for £8, £4.17 for 100g
THIS contains farmed Scottish salmon, salt, sugar, lemon zest and peppercorns. It has no brown bits, no pellicle and is soft with a good balance of salt and smoke.The lemon and peppercorn trim complements the salmon extremely well. Very good indeed. 4/5
M&S Lochmuir Scottish Oak and Applewood Smoked Salmon, £7.39 for 8 slices (200g), £3.69 per 100g
CONTAINS Scottish salmon, salt and demerara sugar. This salmon was surprisingly bad. The pellicle was left on, the slice was too thick and I even found a bone in it. The flavour was good, though, rich and smoky. 2/5
M&S says: “Our customers have told us they enjoy salmon with a smokier flavour and a meaty texture, this is done by the traditional method of retaining the pellicle where the smoky flavour is concentrated.’
Inverawe Smoked Scottish Salmon, £4.79 for 100g (Waitrose and smokedsalmon.co.uk)
CONTAINS Scottish salmon and salt. This has a royal warrant and rightly so. The salmon comes in long, thin slices, it is not remotely greasy and is very flavourful with a strong, smoky taste. It’s quite salty, too‚ definitely one for those who like a robust salmon. 4/5
Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Scottish Salmon smoked over chestnut wood, topped with lemon-infused basil oil, £4.79 for 120g, £3.99 for 100g
CONTAINS salmon, salt, lemon-infused rapeseed oil, basil and sugar. This is so soft it is difficult to separate into slices. It has no salt or smoke flavour. 1/5
Sainsbury’s says: “All our smoked salmon are produced in Scotland and naturally smoked for several hours over woodchips in kilns. We feel the sugar gives a more rounded and rich flavour.”
Morrisons Oak-Smoked Salmon, £2.99 for 100g
CONTAINS Scottish salmon, salt and sugar. This is too soft, too greasy and cut in uneven slices that are too thick at the bottom. It tastes fishy with a slight tang. No redeeming features. 0/5
Morrisons says: “Sugar and salt are added to help remove moisture, which can cause bacteria to form, as well as adding flavour. The fish is smoked for 8 to 16 hours and the pellicle is kept on because some customers prefer it.”
WHAT THE LABEL MEANS
SMOKED SCOTTISH SALMON: Farmed salmon from Scotland that has been smoked. Much is smoked in Holland and comes back to the UK or Scotland to be sold.
SCOTTISH SMOKED SALMON: Salmon from anywhere that has been smoked in Scotland. It does not mean the fish is Scottish.
WILD SALMON: Salmon that has not been farmed. Most wild salmon in the UK comes from Alaska. Wild Scottish salmon is in season from May to August.
ORGANIC: This salmon is farmed in cages. It is fed a different diet and given more space than conventional farmed fish. Not to be confused with wild salmon.