What happens in a smokehouse and making blinis
Having a tour of a smokehouse might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I’d been badgering Jason of Salmontini for a visit since last November. Partly because of the story behind it – his Dad had started the business in Beirut smoking five fish a week on their balcony in a home-made smoker made out of a cupboard due to the introduction of a huge tax on smoked goods (which he was then importing). Partly also in awe that someone could actually be bothered to fly fresh Scottish salmon to Dubai and smoke it here and make it taste absolutely sublime. Finally because I was refused entry to a kipper smokehouse in Craster – “against rules and regulations you know. We supply Waitrose.” Yes the inner rebellious teenager in me is alive and kicking; if someone says I can’t do something it makes it even more compelling.
So here I was on an industrial estate, not improved in any way by being in a place called ‘the Green Community’, meeting the next generation of Bassili salmon smokers. I had some vague romantic vision in my head of wooden sheds with large dangling creatures suspended in the smoky gloom. Of course it was nothing like that, gleaming white surfaces and modern machinery, but even more impressive when you get down to it.
First I met the fish. Three year old handsome beasts with a sharp-toothed snarl and a gleam in their eyes. It’s the gleam that’s important. From being shuttled off this mortal coil (by a humane and instantaneous method) to arriving in Dubai is around three days. In fact it takes longer for them to get to the markets in Paris (as they go by road haulage). These glistening creatures stared up out of their bed of ice looking like they would jump up at any moment. Most of the six tonnes had already been cleaned, heads, tails and backbone removed by hand, each salted by hand with rock salt and were in the curing rack, the moisture gently leaching out of them.
One batch was already in the smoker, the flesh gently permeated by the scent given off by the oak chips (sent from German forests). I’d expected to see the fish hanging but the shelves and air flow are designed so that there is a very even smoke. The Bassili family have become good friends with the German manufacturer of the smoking machine, ‘Mr Reich’, over the last 20 years and visit each other’s homes. Salmontini usesa simple smoke, Jason says they are confident of the taste – heavy smoke usually disguises faults in the fish.
The next room was bright and clinical, like a huge operating theatre. Gowned and masked people worked in hushed concentration, using fine pliers to extract tiny bones, scalpels to remove the smallest of imperfections and long straight filleting knives to slice the smoked salmon flesh into the finest, even, transparent pieces. They even remove the first domed slice (called the pinnacle) which absorbs more smoky flavour than the rest of the fish; (later I checked Jason’s recommendation that it tastes great accompanied by Scottish single malt whisky (I tried a very peaty Kilchoman). It does.) Finally, the slices of fish are interleaved with nylon and vacuum packed – by hand of course.
There is an Arabic word ‘zelcher’ which translates as ‘fishy stink’ which is produced when the fat of the salmon converts in to oil. There was not a trace of fishy smell anywhere in the smokery – it was hard to imagine that there was fish in there at all, despite visual evidence to the contrary.
I met Jason’s Dad Joe Bassili, who started his fish-smoking apprenticeship in Beirut in 1992 starting with trial and error methods on his balcony with pipes and a cupboard, controlling the smoke with wet towels. He then spent several months in the Shetland Isles of Scotland working with a couple called Debbie and David who had a traditional stone smokehouse where he learnt the traditional process from start to finish. Their smokehouse no longer exists and production of smoked salmon in Scotland is largely mechanised or fragmented. Richard Lochhead, Minister for Food, Drink, Agriculture, Fish and the Environment in Scotland commended Salmontini for continuing Scottish traditions and pronounced their salmon the best he’d ever tasted. From selling five fish a week, Salmontini now import twelve tonnes into Dubai and Beirut.
It’s the understanding of the smoking process and care and attention to detail built up through years of experience that makes Joe a bit rueful and dejected when he talks about the current market conditions for smoked salmon. Some products retail for the same price or less that he buys his unsmoked salmon. Many chefs understand the taste and quality, but it’s surprising which five star properties choose the cheapest option.
Does all this make a difference to the taste? Jason, very kindly, sent me off with a generous quantity of Salmontini smoked salmon. The first difference is the smell, or lack of it. The metallic, oily scent, the product of the fat converting to oil, simply isn’t there. It just smells fresh and smoky. The texture is silky, again lacking any trace of oil; I usually coat smoked salmon in a mass of lemon juice to cut through it but was happy to eat this unadorned by anything. The taste is light and fresh with a subtle smoke – it kept luring me back for more and I ate an inordinate amount in one week. Some I took to a Fooderati Arabia wine evening disappeared quickly; the clean flavours were an ideal accompaniment to our varietal tasting of Chardonnay. I took blinis to a friend’s house where her husband ate the lot on the spot.
True artisan food producers are rare in Dubai and I came away with enormous admiration for Joe, Jason and the other highly skilled workers in their small operation. They run a modern operation, seeking to produce the absolute best that they can, using 100 year old methods. There’s a passion, an almost obsession, that seems to unite all artisans. Jason says he eats smoked salmon every day. Open the fridge of a Lebanese person and you will find smoked salmon – it’s as essential as eggs; I now understand why.
This was my first try at making blinis – I thought you needed a special pan and the whole process looks complicated. You don’t and it isn’t. The batter was forgiving – after the overnight ferment I dashed in and out of the house doing the next stages between teen social life drop offs. The recipe recommends horseradish cream but I wasn’t aware that you could get fresh horseradish in Dubai then (I now know you can thanks to the Rivington Grill chefs) and to be honest this quality of smoked salmon needs simple accompaniments. I used labneh, a kind of yoghurt cheese popular in the Middle East, which was perfect (no need to add lemon).
More about Salmontini smoked salmon
- They buy fresh salmon from small Scottish producers in Lewis, Harris and the Shetland Isles, as they believe that it has just the right balance of fat for smoking
- It takes only a day and a half for the fresh salmon to reach Dubai; it needs this time to go through rigor mortis as it’s better for the absorption of the salt and the smoke
- The fish are strong and mature at three years old weighing between 4-5 kg per fish and they arrive on ice
- They buy them whole so they can check for freshness. The heads and backbones are taken by the staff to make soup.
- Each piece of fish is salted by hand as the thinner sections, on the tail for example, need less salt
- They mature in the fridge for a day to take our the moisture
- Smoking for 24 hours, then resting for another day and a half means that the smoke permeates evenly through the whole piece of fish.
Salmontini smoked salmon is available in Dubai from Carrefour Hyper Markets, Choitram, Lifco and Jones the Grocer.
More about salmon
Since the publicity (in 2003) surrounding a study that pointed to high levels of carcinogenic chemicals contained in farmed salmon from feed, environment and treatment against parasites, I have rarely eaten it. I voiced these concerns to Jason who talked me through the life cycle of the farmed fish bought by Salmontini. In brief, they source from a small trusted producer where the stages of the fish development mimic conditions in the wild; very different from highly industrialised bulk farmers. The eggs are hatched in pure clean water, then they are introduced to saltier conditions as they grow before being released into vast nets in a loch. The natural currents purify the nets and keep the fish moving (so they are fitter and leaner). At the age of a year and a half they are given one injection of anti-biotic against sea-lice and are not harvested until over three years old (unlike most Norwegian salmon which have higher fat levels due to the colder water conditions and shorter lives at two years old). Beacons in the loch scare away predators such as seals. Their food contains vegetable oil (rather than contaminated fish oil slammed in the earlier report). The ‘swim ashore’ method where the fish swim into pipes and are killed with a blow on the head and a simultaneous spike in the gills, is humane and keeps stress to a minimum. While the debate about sustainability and safety continues, it’s clear that not all farmed salmon is the same and that Salmontini sources from a high quality supplier. As demonstrated time and time again, the demand for cheap food available all year round has had a negative impact so it’s best to buy the best you can.
Have you ever made blinis? How do you like to eat your smoked salmon? Have you got a view on farmed vs wild?
- Well farmed salmon is key to sustainability (TheTelegraph.co.uk)
- my go-to recipe – buckwheat blinis with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs (lifestylegypsy.wordpress.com)
- My quick visit to a salmon farm in Norway; a quick report (foodpolitics.com)
- Fish Farms; Salmond’s salmon (economist.com)