In the sixteen years that Lance Forman has been running the smokery established by his great grandfather in 1905, H. Forman & Son has burnt down and been rebuilt, whereupon it flooded so badly it had to be abandoned. Lance rebuilt again, but within a year a compulsory purchase order was placed on Forman’s and 250 surrounding businesses: he had constructed the factory on the very site where the Olympic stadium now sits. But Lance, perhaps inspired by the wild salmon strenuously flinging itself upstream, was not discouraged. Forman’s was rebuilt to maximum eye-catching effect in the shape and colour of a salmon, in a site across the Lee Navigation canal and overlooking the stadium. Sleek, hi tech and dotted with playful fishy motifs, it incorporates a gallery to show work by Hackney artists, and an acclaimed restaurant.
Interview with Lance Forman
While many family businesses would be falling over themselves to capitalise on such a long heritage combined with dramatic tales of adversity overcome, Lance has a mission beyond PR spin. Shortly into our conversation he said, “what I really want to talk to you about is salmon”. So he did, and it was pretty interesting. And, if you are thinking of indulging this Christmas with some supermarket salmon, you might want to think again.
The London Cure
The story of smoked salmon goes back to the late nineteenth century and the waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who brought a tradition of curing fish with them. At first they imported salted fish from the Baltics, but at Billingsgate Market they saw beautiful Scottish salmon and – in lightly salting and smoking it – devised the London Cure, one of Britain’s most distinctive gourmet foods. Until recently smoked salmon wasn’t a Scottish tradition – Scots produced much more robust and powerfully smoked herring or haddock.
The London Cure is part of the East End’s heritage – up until the 1970s there were still a dozen smokeries in the area, but the industry was hard hit by the growth of farmed salmon and now Forman’s is East London’s last smokehouse. Forman’s have survived partly by adapting, but also by never compromising on the quality of the product. While the new factory looks pretty fancy, the process is artisanal: every slice is cut by hand and thus quality controlled by an expert.
And the freshness of the salmon is of the essence – it’s delivered from Scotland six times a week, meaning there’s minimal delay before it’s salted and then cold-smoked. At 3am the fish comes out of Forman’s kilns, and later that day it’ll arrive at The Savoy: Fortum & Masons and the House of Lords are also on the impressive client list.
With almost daily deliveries and hand-cutting, Forman’s smoked salmon is expensive. So why fork out when you could buy the product for a fraction of the price at the supermarket? Here’s why…
Supermarket salmon: more than a little fishy
Lance, working with a food consultant, bought the full range of smoked salmon from one of Britain’s posher supermarkets, for a taste analysis. He reckoned that in a third of cases, the fish had been off when it was smoked. His theory is that we’re accustomed to thinking of salmon as a luxurious treat, we smother it in lemon and we don’t realise we’re eating an inferior rather than gourmet product. Here are some of Lance’s fun supermarket salmon facts:
- 45% percent of the salmon we eat is Norwegian, in some cases passed off as Scottish because it is smoked in Scotland. Geographical distance can add three days to the time between catching and smoking the fish.
- In Scotland farmed fish are stunned and die instantly. In Norway many are killed by being starved of oxygen. The stress this causes makes the fish thrash around so their flesh becomes gappy. There are obvious cruelty issues.
- Fish gets cheaper as it gets older, so many producers delay buying fish till it’s past its best, perhaps taking a delivery once a week.
- While Forman’s fillet by hand, 90% of salmon is filleted by machine. Rigor mortis sets in when a fish is killed, making it difficult to machine-fillet. So fish may be left for two days to soften before being filleted.
- Salting naturally sucks moisture from the salmon so that its weight decreases by 10%. But as food is sold by weight, some producers pump up the fish with brine – giving supermarket salmon its flabby, greasy texture.
- To prolong the shelf life of the product too much salt is used – 5% rather than the ideal 3%. As the salmon then tastes too salty, sugar is added to counterbalance the salt. Lance suggests that if you see sugar on a smoked salmon label then steer clear.
- In the smoking process another 10% of the weight of the fish is lost. So some producers skip the smoking altogether and spray their salmon with liquid smoke flavouring.
Dunno about you dear readers, but by this point I was thinking: that sounds absolutely disgusting. It was time to taste some proper salmon, smoked at Forman’s.
We both sampled London-cured farmed and wild salmon. Lance pointed out that farmed salmon has its merits, and the orangey curl of fish was indeed delicately flavoured and delicious. But then we moved on the wild stuff. “It’s gorgeous!” exclaimed Lance, and it was: dusty rosy pink in colour, and with subtle but balanced flavours of smoke, salt and exuberant fishiness. As for the wonderful texture, the Mills and Boons-esque term “firm but yielding” seems apposite; it’s a million miles from the slipperiness and sheen of the supermarket variety.
So, a big cheer – perhaps even an Olympic gold – to Lance for guiding his business through tough times, and being a champion of the historic London Cure. And a big boo to those who prefer to take a beautiful natural product and wring every last penny from the people who supply it, denying the consumer its true flavour and health-giving properties. Back to the starting block with you.
The recipes below, provided by Forman’s, offer three ways of serving salmon: as a canapé, as an elegant starter, and poached whole. Save your lemons for the G&T, and focus instead on the inherent flavour of this lovely product: you can buy salmon (as well as other fine British foods) online through Forman & Field. To round things off, there’s a glamorous cheat’s pud.