Most people are unaware that smoked salmon emerged from the East End of London around the turn of the last century, when Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, wistful for the taste of home, started preserving fish in the traditional methods of Poland and Ukraine. When they realised they could buy salmon from Scotland cheaper and fresher than the Baltic, a tradition was born: Scotch salmon cured in London.
Initially for enclaves of Eastern Europeans in Stepney Green and the environs, smoked salmon became a prized delicacy, served only at celebrations and special occasions, and not widely available for sale. Until the 1980s a dozen smokehouses thrived in London. Like with so many gourmet foods, this tradition was undermined by the heavy handed intervention of agricultural subsidies and supermarkets. The former encouraged nascent Scottish salmon farms to produce cheap salmon and open their own industrial smoking facilities up north. The latter demanded cheaper food to sell in greater quantities. In 30 years, salmon smokehouses in London dwindled away and smoked salmon became ubiquitous, but with drastically varying levels of quality. Automating processes previously done by hand, and introducing additives and shortcuts as cost saving measures, compromised the very essence of this historic food.
When it comes to salmon, smoke should not be a flavour, but a process. Smoky flavours stick to the palate and linger, overwhelming delicate flavours. Top notch smoked salmon should taste only of the freshest fish, and the curing ingredient, namely salt. Indeed, the skill of making smoked salmon lies in the curing process. Smoking, the final step, is a preservative. It produces a hard crust around the fish, which is removed in its entirety, revealing the soft flesh underneath.