Delia travelled to the Isle of Skye a few years ago to visit a salmon farm that excels at rearing and smoking this magnificent fish.
Next time you snip some pieces of smoked salmon into your softly scrambled eggs as you stir and begin to catch that special fragrance and smokiness of the salmon, you might pause to reflect for a moment on how it is that this highly prized, yet once very expensive and exclusive ingredient, has of late become so much more accessible and affordable?
Traditionally, the ancient arts of smoking and curing fish have been skills that the British, and in particular the Scots, have excelled at. But salmon, that crowned king of all fish, has been ever elusive, leaving the rivers for a life out at sea and returning only for a final suicidal journey up river for spawning. Even in the peak months of April to July, there has rarely been quite enough salmon caught to take it out of a luxury market.
So what has happened to change all this? What was it that has now turned this rare, expensive, luxury into something that everyone can enjoy? One part of the answer can be told in a unique and fascinating story that began way back in what became known as the Swinging Sixties. It was the era of rock music and our story centres on one very successful rock band at the time – Jethro Tull – named quite prophetically, as it turns out, after the eighteenth century British farmer. This particular band's collective talent not only transcended the uncertainties of that rather volatile rock era, but moved on to become an established and enduring classic rock band with an international following.
Since the Sixties, some 30 million or so albums have been sold around the world alongside sell-out concerts right up to the present time. But, you're thinking, what has all this got to do with smoked salmon? Well, as it happens, everything.
The lead vocals and flautist in Jethro Tull is a Scot, one Ian Anderson born in Dunfermline and raised in Edinburgh till the age of 12. What the glitzy pop world, travel, fame and a considerable fortune never managed to do was in any way eclipse those Scottish roots. It was in 1978, after reading and reflecting on an article about salmon farming on an aeroplane, that Ian Anderson returned to the Highlands of Scotland and bought the Strathaird Estate on the Isle of Skye, sensing rightly that the salmon farming industry, then in its infancy, could, if successful, provide a creative way forward for the inhabitants of the Highlands who have for centuries had salmon fishing, smoking and curing in their blood. Not only would this provide employment in a remote part of Scotland, but would at the same time create a quality product from the area that eventually the rest of the world could enjoy.
That was quite some vision! But the story itself begins on the Isle of Skye, a dramatic and very beautiful sculptured rocky landscape. This, the largest island of the inner Hebrides, has been described as one of Britain's most complex geological areas; the Strathaird Estate itself is set amongst those famous serrated topped hills known as the Cuillins and is made up of some 15,000 acres of vertical rock! Sir Walter Scott describes the area thus, `for all is rock at random thrown, black waves, bare crags and banks of stone'. Not exactly the place for a farm you might be thinking, but this misty and mysterious terrain, formed by millions of years of geological change, could not, had it been custom designed, be more perfect for this new and exciting venture into salmon farming.
What took place all those billions of years ago was that in amongst all those `random thrown rocks' narrow inlets formed – stretches of water known as sea lochs which allow the sea to penetrate the land and which in turn give the land access to the sea. Because the lochs are the sea, they are subject to something called high tidal exchange, when the tides coming in and out mean the sea replaces itself every 24 hours. This causes very strong underwater currents and this is precisely what our regal species needs. Salmon are shoal fish that swim all the time. A salmon of quality is one that develops strong muscles and not too much fat. Here on Skye, a salmon can perpetually swim against the currents of the tidal exchange (underwater aerobics take on new meaning in this context).
If we take salmon farming as a whole, it can be an emotive subject: mistakes have obviously been made, and salmon reared in seawater lochs without this vital exchange of the sea can obviously never match their wild ancestry. But when I visited one of the six Strathaird sea lochs at Eiseort, I was stimulated and excited at being able to discover how the enormous challenge of rearing these magnificent creatures that once only lived in the wild has been met. Here the wise, prophetic myth of Genesis chapter one was being enacted right now before me: `Go fill the earth... be masters of the fish of the sea.'
Remote would be precisely the word to describe this village – with a population of 40, small groups of houses nestling round an empty bay, the loch itself surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful hills on either side, and their colours now sultry shades of purple brightened only by splashes of bright yellow gorse.
We are lucky there is no mist; everything is visible as we cross over to the huge netted salmon cages and clamber on to the floating platforms that surround them. Our beloved creatures, sensing that movement on the platform heralds food, are jumping out of the water, leaping up, sometimes four feet from the surface. It is a truly dazzling display as the light catches their iridescent beauty.
Robert Kelly, the managing director of Strathaird, explains how the cycle of rearing salmon follows the natural cycle as closely as possible. The ova are hatched in January and reared, as in the wild, in freshwater. When they reach all of three grams in weight, they are transferred to another freshwater site, where they grow to become what are called smolts. This takes until about April of the following year, by which time they will have turned a silvery colour. The tricky bit is to determine the exact moment they are ready for the sea and it's the skill and experience of the salmon farmer that is paramount here. When the moment comes, speed is of the essence in order to avoid stress, so they are transferred into large bucket-like containers filled with water and then airlifted over to the sea loch as fast as possible by helicopter.
Once in the sea, the salmon are fed twice a day with dried fish pellets and they continue to grow. Grilse – early maturing fish – are harvested from May to August in the third year and the rest continue to grow till either the autumn or spring of the fourth year.
Unlike other farming operations, this one stretches over a four-year period involving long, dedicated and skilful care. The salmon, still jumping, look so bright and buoyant and I ask what the secret is. Robert, and farm manager Hugh, put it all down simply to good husbandry. `Like any farm operations there are dangers, and we have learnt that keeping the stock intensity down and allowing the salmon enough space to swim against the current is crucial. We have also come to understand how to work alongside Nature, keeping to the natural cycle of the salmon as closely as possible – if you try to push it to make it artificial you run into trouble.'
Another factor is the resting of the sea sites; like arable land they need to be left fallow for the sea bed to recover for three to four months before a new generation of fish is added. As always the human factor is a vital one and although I hear stories of horrendous storms and farm workers being stranded and having to strap themselves to the platforms overnight, Strathaird salmon are always fed by hand because the twice daily human contact insures the salmon are regularly observed. Luckily, if the sea proves too rough, the salmon can skip meals for one or two days without coming to any harm. Hugh manages to net a salmon for me to get a close look for a few seconds. I have never seen a live salmon and am totally awed by its transcendent beauty.
The smoker's requirements are also what the farmer needs constantly to address. The perfect size is 2.5 kilos, and the correct balance of fat and oil content, and of course firmness of texture, are altogether what is required for the exclusive quality of fine smoked salmon.
By now, the wind is getting keener and we leave the salmon in their lonely loch, with the incoming tide and screaming gulls for company. Day two of my visit and the next part of the story takes place in the smoking and processing unit at Inverness. Not the wooden smoking but in a field I remember writing about before the EC got to hear of such things, but a large, roomy building filled with sparkling stainless steel. But while modern technology provides the backdrop, the all-important presence of human involvement throughout the process is, I suspect, what gives this quality product an edge over its competitors.
After gutting, the fresh salmon arrive for the first stage of the processing which involves first of all removing a small shaving of silver skin on each side which is skilfully cut away with a lethal looking, power driven circular blade called a wizard. This leaves the salmon flesh in contact with the air and allows the fillet to dry out in its thickest part, and as the water drains out it pushes the salt right through the flesh. It is this vital permeation of salt that acts as a preservative to the fish.
I wouldn't like to tell you how long it might take me to fillet a whole salmon, that is provided I can get the knife sharp enough in a first place – but here before my very eyes I saw an absolute star performer called, believe it or not, Ahmed, from Morocco, actually filleting whole salmon one after another in an average time – and yes I did count – of seven seconds and, at the same, time leaving no flesh at all on the bone. What a skill! The very day I was there some poor salesman had tried to sell Strathaird an automatic filleting machine – but after seeing Ahmed and his colleagues in action he had to humbly admit that it couldn't do the job as efficiently!
After the filleting, the salmon are laid in trays and sprinkled with a mixture of brown sugar and salt – the sugar gives a milder, more traditional cure which makes the salmon less sharp on the palate. The salmon sides get completely covered except for the tails which would, because the flesh is thin, absorb too much salt, but what happens is as the salt dissolves along the thickest part, it migrates down to the tail, giving it just the right amount for curing.
It takes 24 hours for the salt to penetrate through the flesh of the salmon, then the sides are rinsed and laid on racks inside large kilns and given ten hours smoking. The smoke permeating the kiln emanates from sawdust and chippings that come from red oak trees grown in Russia. The temperature is 28°C and is constantly balanced against a 65 per cent relative humidity.
After smoking the sides are chilled for 48 hours, a stabilising period which allows all the smoky flavours to penetrate – while the salt still goes on `equalising' right up to the moment the salmon is cut. Now the sides arrive in the slicing hall. The first stage is trimming and pin-boning, all done deftly by hand. The trimmings and the outside slice (called the pellicle) are not included in the packs of sliced salmon, but are still highly prized for their extra smokiness and flavour, and are used to make Isle of Skye Smoked Salmon Pâté.
The final stage is the hand slicing itself, 50 or more highly skilled workers making light work of it all. I was totally mesmerised by a young lady called Marnie and the ease and speed with which she worked. She invited me to slice some, but a slice is not what I ended up with – I'd say more a chunk! Clearly a skill I have yet to acquire, unlike Marnie who slices 35 kilos a day!
Strathaird supply Sainsbury's own-brand salmon. And Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull? They still travel the world, playing their music, and thanks to their success and the combination of the farmers and smokers' skills, and an increasingly flourishing export market, a little taste of the Isle of Skye also wings its way around the globe giving an awful lot of people similar pleasure.
Delia's recipes using smoked salmon