Fishing for compliments
IMAGINE a buffet without smoked salmon. Beyond belief. Any host at a wedding reception who neglected to serve trayfuls of dainty canapes adorned with the fishy gold to accompany the mandatory bubbly would justifiably be accused of being cheap.
Smoking is a venerable process of preservation that is probably as old as man has lived in hills. You can smoke almost anything: trout, haddock, eel, ham, cheese, even the primordial mollusc. But if salmon is king of the fish, then smoked salmon rates alongside caviare, truffles and oysters on the top table of Western culinary cornucopia.
You may think the subtle scent and taste of burning wood is transferred to the flesh of the salmon in the same way a lump of sugar sweetens a cup of coffee. Wrong. Smoke is a complex material and this oversimplified analogy misses an important factor, and one which sounds a bit sinister: destructive distillation.
Wood is destroyed as it burns and eventually reduced to inert ash. On the way its volatile components - more than 200 - are released in the smoke. These are then recovered, by condensation, on whatever food is hanging in the smoke chamber. Each item is gradually encased in an envelope of minute particles, a deposit that penetrates all the crevices that includes alcohols, acids, and various toxic - sometimes even carcinogenic - substances.
The amazing thing is that every one of these chemicals originally present in the wood had been drawn up in solution from the soil and converted by the tree into waxes and oils in the sap. And to complicate things further, and render the smoker's art even more skilful, each one has a different boiling point, its own identity number in the table of degrees of heat required to make it boil.
A slow, low heat generated by a fire partly starved of oxygen will not be sufficient to boil the pitch latent in the concentrated sap of oak. This pitch would impart a bitter flavour which would spoil the taste of the finished salmon. But the same temperature may boil the antiseptic substance that yields acetic acid, or the one for formaldehyde, both good preservatives. In other words, many of the substances in smoke inhibit the growth of microbes and the oxidisation of fats, and that's what smoking is all about.
What determines the flavour derived from smoke is, firstly the wood, but more particularly the temperature at which the wood is destroyed. Equally important is the process that precedes the smoke chamber: salt curing, usually dry, sometimes in brine, but always with the addition of a quantity of sugar.
This complex harmony of flavours - salt, sweet, smoke and bitterness, as well as that of the salmon - were the criteria we put before a group of people who reckoned they knew a thing or two about fine food as we tried to find out what is available in Hong Kong for the casual shopper who gets a notion to treat the household to a taste of luxury.
We went to four of the territory's famous food outlets to see what they offered in their cold cabinets. And so it was that we found ourselves in the Presidential Suite of The Ritz-Carlton one afternoon sipping a chilled Ivan Tamas 1992 Central California Chardonnay (a lovely wine, but don't go looking for it at your wine store; the hotel group shrewdly buys the winery's entire production). And the six judges exercised their eyes, noses and taste buds on eight varieties of smoked salmon.
The judges were restaurateurs David Pilbrow, owner of Stanley's French and Stanley's Oriental, Rupert Chevenix-Trench, of Bentley's Seafood restaurant, brand name consultant and gourmet Ronson Kwok, Ritz-Carlton general manager Michael Matthews and his executive chef Donald Berger, a Canadian who has probably smoked more salmon than anyone in Hong Kong, plus token Scotsman, advertising representative Edward Burness, who used to spend his university holidays in a smokery.
Food and wine tasting is notoriously subjective, but with only one exception all the judges accorded one sample - number five - their highest marks. For flavour, texture, colour, oiliness and richness it scored handsomely over the opposition. It was a Scottish salmon from Pinneys of Dumfriesshire who, as well as stocking the shelves of Park'N Shop in Hong Kong (at $37.50 per 100 grams), also supply smoked salmon (for unknown sums) to Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales.
It seemed as though it was Park'N Shop's day. Some way behind in second place came an example of the smoking art from New Zealand, where they had taken to farming Atlantic salmon in conditions very similar to those in the lochs of Scotland. Regal is the brand and it sells retail for $32.90 per 100 grams.
Very close behind in third place came a sample from the well-known Loch Fyne Scottish smokery, available in Seibu for $54 per 100 grams, while at Oliver's it sells for $68. Not far away, scoring equally in fourth place, came two examples of Norwegian smoked salmon, Wellcome's Value Fresh ($25.50) and Park 'N Shop's own brand ($12 per 50 grams).
'The perfect smoked salmon should have some saltiness, a hint of sweetness, a little smokiness; it should obviously taste of salmon, and no bitterness. Everything should be in balance, you shouldn't taste only salt or only smoke,' says Berger, who makes it quite clear none of these pre-cut, pre-packed, probably frozen, possibly dyed examples approaches perfection.
'A salmon must have a sufficient fat content to start with for the flavour to be fully retained. The highest quality smoked salmons have a slight sheen to them; then the smoker has managed to capture the fish's oil and fat in a state of emulsion. Sometimes you find it looks greasy instead; that's wrong. It's almost like a good sauce, say a butter sauce: when it's properly made it's smooth, it's got a good consistency and viscosity, but when it's broken you see the constituents coming apart. The same goes for smoked salmon.' The tasting over, the judges sat back with the wine and reminisced about grill rooms they had known where experts carved with surgical precision the thinnest of slices from whole sides of the king of fish. This is the way it should always be, they said. Salmon that has been prepared for the supermarket cold shelf thousands of kilometres from the river that spawned it, is an order taller than those fishy stories of the one that got away.