When prehistoric Hackney citizens roamed the plashy marshes and meandering water meadows of the Lea Valley they brought home wild fowl and fish, fruits and seeds, and enjoyed a varied but by no means balanced diet.
A good catch meant a glut and much feasting, and a poor one left empty bellies. We soon learned to preserve the fish and meat left after a binge by wind drying, salting and smoking.
Of all foodstuffs that started to go off almost as soon as it was caught, fish was the most vulnerable, so barrels of herrings in salt or brine, cod dried to the consistency of a block of wood, sardines, fried then put in a vinegary pickle, all became commercial staples and much loved fare. Our national dish of fish and chips has its origins here, but that’s another story…
When Lance Forman’s ancestors came to Hackney from Odessa in 1905 and set up a smokery in Ridley Road, Londoners were astonished at the delicacy and melting tenderness of their smoked salmon, made not with heavily salted fish from the Baltic, but fresh wild salmon sourced by the Forman family from Scotland.
From subsistence food to a luxury treat, today their state-of-the-art, high tech smokery, having survived fire, flood, and planning blight (the murky shenanigans of the Olympic committee…), borders on the dubious terrain that once housed the games, and here Scottish salmon are still prepared following traditional methods.
The glitzy décor is new, but the age-old methods survive. It is Lance Forman’s genial combination of entrepreneurial skills and unshakeable idealism that saved his firm when other East End smokeries collapsed in the face of unscrupulous competition.
Of the various cures for which they are renowned Forman’s ‘London Cure’ is perhaps the most characteristic: the fish are salted for a short time, rinsed, drained, and ‘cold’ smoked over oak shavings at a low temperature. The resultant delicate, light flesh is thinly sliced diagonally the length of the fish, and best eaten at once.
Sensitive slicing by hand gives variations in the texture of the flesh, with a better flavour and a less slithery feel than the mechanically cut versions done by mass-producers of inferior products. It is paradoxical that a technique evolved for long-life preservation has today brought us an ephemeral product, with a relatively short shelf life.
‘Farmed salmon’ does not have to be a derogatory term; it all depends on how they are reared and what they feed on. Forget battery hens and calves in crates, and imagine the deep pens through which the cold northern waters surge. And remember that fish have been farmed by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and reared in ponds by medieval monastic communities.
In another corner of Hackney, where its ancient inhabitants once roamed amongst fields and hedgerows, swallowed up only recently in brickfields and then by those rows of no-longer-cheap terraced houses, there lies a hidden network of converted industrial premises and modern mews developments.
Behind the stretch of Church Street facing Clissold Park, there lurks a different kind of smokery; Hansen & Lydersen was founded in 1923 in Norway where traditions of catching and preserving fish go back to prehistoric times.
A small family firm, they were producing high quality smoked salmon using ancient methods. The arrival five years ago in Stoke Newington of the smokery of Ole Hansen, great grandson of the founder, brought a whole new dimension to Hackney’s gastronomic life.
Here, in an obscure studio, Ole, with an inspired combination of imagination, childhood memories and down-to-earth hands-on skills, together with his equally enthusiastic team, are offering us a luxury product.
His fish is farmed in the cold bracing waters of northern Norway. It is prepared and salted within 48 hours at the most of being caught, and lightly smoked for not more than 12 hours using beech and juniper shavings, which impart a distinctive aroma; the beech gives a mild background smokiness and the juniper has a pungent perfume – think the best kind of gin, almost spicy, that lingers on the palate.
The fish, suspended in the drying chamber, swaying voluptuously in the wafting aromas, mellow in the smoke, sometimes soothed, we are told, by riffs and arpeggios from the battered upright piano close by. Ole’s manic business plans are both visionary and practical, so I feel sure that the piano is indeed a source of good vibrations, not just a gimmick.
We can buy the salmon on various of the Hackney street markets, or with advance warning from the smokery. It is awesome to watch the perfectionist preparation, as the fish is trimmed then cut in thick vertical slices towards the skin, giving a variation of flavour and texture through each slice.
This account of two smokeries in Hackney is not a David and Goliath story. Both are on the same side, perfectionists, casting stones and rocks not at each other but by implication at the purveyors of cheap and nasty versions of what should only ever be a luxury product. Best not to think of the ways in which unhealthy farmed fish, none too fresh, can be tarted up with synthetic colouring, salt and sugar to boost water content and hence volume, sprayed with a smoky flavour, and squashed to death in a vacuum pack. Instead save up for a lavish meal.
Forget messing around with canapés, pile it up on the plate. As Oscar Wilde recommended: ‘Enough is as good as a feast; more than enough is even better than a feast’.
Fine smoked salmon needs no recipes, but there are things to do with the trimmings and off-cuts. I weep to see the strip of lush fat from the underbelly get tossed into the waste bin. Sacrilege. If you can cadge some, cut this amazing stuff into little cubes and melt gently in a frying pan, then when the fat is oozing out stir in some beaten eggs and cook lightly, no butter, no milk, just a grating of black pepper. A few trimmings enhance a fish soup. The things to avoid are lemon and cream cheese, both of which add nothing to an already perfect luxury.