"I've always wondered, is it gravlax? Or gravadlax? Let's just call it dilled salmon. So much simpler - and so perfect to have on hand for summer evenings. This is one of those recipes where farmed salmon works unusually well. How come? Farmed salmon is, let's face it, a bit on the flabby side. Who can blame it? If you were wallowing about in a big cage at the mouth of a sea loch rather than fighting your way up the river above that sea loch (having fought your way across the ocean to get there), you'd be flabby too."
Sue Style, a much respected food writing colleague best known for her work on the Financial Times Weekend, recently opened an article on suestyle.com with these words. I recommend her food, wine and travel website to you all. But here is The Thing, the reason for me picking up on this when Sue shared her article on Facebook. Not all aquaculture-produced salmon are farmed in sea lochs. For sure, if stocking densities are too high and cheaper feed is used; if the fish do not vigorously swim in their environment and if the point of kill is not right (quick and clean, i.e stress-free), the flesh of the salmon will be flabby. Oh dear, I am off on a rant!
Aquaculture has a huge part to play in feeding the modern world and piscatorial-loving omnivores need to know where to buy good quality - and yes Sue, non-flabby - farmed salmon. In the UK that means buying from one of the two more expensive UK supermarkets, namely Waitrose or M&S, if you want to know that you are going to get consistently high-quality and non-flabby salmon every time that you shop. Other stores, who do not have comprehensive supply-chain agreements, cannot offer guaranteed quality 52 weeks of the year. Pay your money and make your choice - do you support excellence in aquaculture, or make do in pursuit of a cheaper product which is, by comparison, a bargain? It's farmed salmon - surely it is all the same? No, it is not!
By choosing the cheaper option you might be buying a fish that has NOT swum against strong oceanic tides in generously sized netted pens with low stocking levels to ensure that there is room for the fish to swim against the currents ripping through. It might also have been fed on pellets NOT based on fish trim and fish oils but on feed containing vegetable oils and more cereal than just for binding purposes, for reasons of economy. How does that affect the omega-3, so rich in oily fish but already under scrutiny as the levels of this vital nutrient have been identified as lower in recent tests on some farmed salmon? Change the feed composition for economy and something will suffer. Surely it could have been foreseen that this would be a consequence?
I have been lucky to travel the world looking at aquaculture projects and there is real excellence in the field. I have also served on the board of the Waitrose farmed salmon supplier and hosted food writers and journalists at their sites in the Orkney Islands, where the oceanic tides provide a perfect environment for aquaculture. When journalists have visited they have been impressed, from hatchery to harvest boat and processing, the latter being a key factor in quality flesh, just as it is for meat. Stress at the point of kill releases enzymes that affect flesh quality. From hatchery to packaging the whole process has to be conducted with the utmost care. The difficulty in getting the positive message of aquaculture to you, the salmon-loving consumer, is that most papers and magazines will not release their staff for 3 days including travel time for one story, and so the whole Flabby Fish Fable is perpetuated, spoon-fed by an effective, anti-industry lobby.
In Orkney, if your property includes access to the seashore that shore is yours and not the Crown's. We recently met a lady who told us that her boundary extended to the lowest tide line and then as far as she could throw a salmon net! The chance of catching a wild salmon now so close to shore on an island has got to be zero: in a salmon river estuary it might be slightly better but with less than 10% of wild salmon successfully returning to their home waters to spawn you can imagine that the price of such a prized, nutritious catch would put it way beyond the budget of the average salmon cook, yet alone preclude it from all but the most highly priced restaurant menus.
The Chief Taster and I plan to move to Orkney in the next few months. Once settled, if any food writers and journalists would like to visit Orkney to see the very best of aquaculture, please get in touch. And if you haven't seen the process for yourself, please don't perpetuate the flabby fish fable. Instead, help your readers to buy better salmon.
Scottish salmon is the UK's second most valuable food and drink export according to a report issued by the Food and Drink Federation in May 2017. Sales of salmon were up 50% by value (to £186.7m) and 13% by volume, and they are second only to whisky (although only about 22% of the value of whisky!). Salmon's success is partly due to world-wide supply problems, in part caused by poor practice, which is why Scottish salmon producers work collaboratively to drive up quality in practice and therefore eating quality in their product.
When people ask us why we want to move to Orkney, the produce is always a very big part of it. Whisky and salmon - what a fantastic basis of a diet! Will our consumption ratios echo the export values? Watch this blog!
Rant over - and thank you Sue for jolting me into a much over-due blog. Now, if you have read this far, here are some of my favourite salmon recipes for you to enjoy. Cheers for now.
To download or print these recipes click here for a pdf version.
Salmon with strawberry sauce Serves 4
This has been one of my 'signature dishes' for the last 25 years and is a most unusual and very delicious buffet party dish if you use a whole side, or even a whole salmon.
- 4 salmon fillets
- Strawberry Sauce:
- 400g British strawberries, hulled
- 50ml sparkling or dry white wine
- 1 tsp freshly chopped tarragon or chervil
- 1-2 tbsp white wine vinegar
- Roughly chop the strawberries and place in a small pan with the wine. Bring almost to the boil, then remove from the heat and allow them to cool. Add the tarragon, then blend to a smooth purée. Add sugar and seasonings to taste, then leave until required.
- Preheat the oven to 200ºC, gas mark 6. Butter a baking sheet and place the salmon on it, skin side down. Bake for 12-15 mins, until just cooked. Serve warm, or cold with the sauce spooned over and watercress to garnish. Griddle or grill the salmon if you prefer.
This is a great way of using up a bargain salmon tail, although I have written it for a middle cut of salmon, the posh traditional way of doing it.
- 2.5kg (approx) middle cut salmon
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 4 tbsp coarse salt
- 4 tbsp light soft muscavado sugar
- Grated zest and juice of 1 medium orange
- 1 medium beetroot, peeled and grated
- 1 bunch fresh dill
- For the sauce to serve (optional):
- 4-5tbsp mayonnaise
- 1-2 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1-2 tbsp clear honey
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp finely chopped dill
- Oil, salt and pepper to taste
- Roughly crush the peppercorns, then mix them with the salt, sugar, orange rind and zest, and beetroot. Finely chop the dill and add it to the mix.
- Lay one fillet out, skin side down. Cover with the curing mix then top with the other fillet, skin side up.
- Place in a food bag, squeeze out all the air and seal. Massage the fish with your fingers to work the curing mix into the flesh. Place on a plate, press with a heavy weight and refrigerate for 24 hours.
- Drain off any excess juices, re-seal and press and leave for a further 12-24 hours. Scrape away the curing mix, rinse if necessary (I prefer not too and wipe away any remaining seasonings with dampened kitchen paper). The fish is now ready to use and will keep for up to a week.
- Serve thinly sliced with the sauce, made by whisking all the ingredients together and adding oil to the preferred consistency, and seasoning to taste.
Tea-soaked salmon with pak choi Serves 4
This great recipe is from Waitrose.com.
- 2 Waitrose Assam tea bags
- 1 tbsp clear honey
- 5cm piece fresh root ginger, peeled and grated
- 4 fresh salmon fillets, about 150g each
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 4 tbsp sweet soy sauce, e.g Connimex
- 200g pack pak choi, halved lengthways
- Place the tea bags in a measuring jug and add 200ml boiling water. Leave to infuse for 5 mins, then remove and discard the tea bags. Stir in the ginger, garlic, soy sauce and honey until well blended. Leave to cool.
- Place the salmon fillets in a small shallow, non-metallic dish and pour the tea over, trying to immerse the flesh. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 4 hours, and preferably 8. Turn the salmon occasionally if it is not completely covered by the marinade.
- Remove the salmon from the marinade and pat dry on kitchen paper. Reserve the marinade. Heat the sesame oil with 1 tbsp olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan, then add the salmon, skin side down. Cook for 2-3 mins, then turn over and cook for 3-4 mins. Remove the salmon and cover with a plate or foil – it will continue cooking in its own steam while you cook the pak choi.
- Add the remaining olive oil to the pan with the pak choi. Stir-fry over a high heat until it is just beginning to wilt, then pour in half the marinade. Bring to the boil and leave to bubble for 3-4 mins, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the pak choi is tender. Serve immediately with the salmon.