I’m just about old enough to remember when smoked salmon was a rare treat. Then, around 1986 or 1987, suddenly it was everywhere. There were smoked salmon sandwiches at M&S, it was stuffed into lurid-looking canapés with cream cheese, and Christmas became a riot of salty fish. For me, smoked salmon is as emblematic of the 1980s as red Porsches, huge mobile phones and the Pet Shop Boys. But it’s almost always a disappointment, that acrid taste only palatable with lots of lemon juice and butter. I’d much rather have potted shrimp.
It’s a far cry from how Scottish smoked salmon is supposed to be. It was first produced, not in Scotland but in London by Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century. They took the Eastern European way of smoking fish and applied it to Scottish salmon from Billingsgate Market. It became a highly prized delicacy and there were dozens of smokehouses in the East End, but in the 1980s industrialised smoked salmon killed them all, except for one, H. Forman & Son.
‘We survived by luck more than strategy. We just didn’t change,’ said Lance Forman, great-grandson of the founder. The business has suffered flood, fire and the attentions of the London Development Agency, which appropriated its land for the Olympics. But it now has a new factory and restaurant located, appropriately enough, in an area of Bow known as Fish Island. London Cure smoked salmon is now a protected food such as Stilton cheese or Iberico ham. To qualify, it has to be Scottish salmon cured using only salt and oak smoke in Hackney, Tower Hamlets or Newham. In this traditional technique, only the outside of the fish comes into contact with smoke. This is then cut off, so the salmon underneath is dried and concentrated, but doesn’t taste of smoke.
In the industrial process the fish probably comes from Norway (it is 20 per cent cheaper). It needs only to be smoked in Scotland to be called Scottish smoked salmon. It may be brined rather than salted to preserve moisture. It might be sprayed with liquid smoke rather than properly smoked, and sugar may be added to balance the saltiness required for a long shelf life. Hence that acrid taste.
For many years, Forman was the only one smoking salmon in London, but now there is a young pretender; a Scotsman, appropriately enough. Max Bergius, who has started the Secret Smokehouse near London Fields, began smoking in his back garden in Stepney. The locals noticed it was something more interesting than Benson & Hedges and took an interest. ‘My fish reminded them of the old days when east London was full of smokehouses,’ says Max.
Both companies use very fresh farmed salmon. ‘We buy fish that was swimming two days ago — it still has rigor mortis,’ Lance Forman told me. They offer different cuts, lean or fatty, depending on your taste. I preferred the fatty cut. ‘That’s your Jewish heritage!’ he told me. Forman also makes a wildly expensive smoked wild salmon, which tastes like a totally different species.
Both claim not have tried their rival’s fish, which I don’t believe for a moment. They taste very different: the Forman product is like concentrated fresh salmon, whereas the Secret Smokehouse stuff has a creamy, oaky note, like a white Burgundy. Both cost about twice the price of normal smoked salmon. Not expensive for such good fish, but far too good for an M&S sarnie.