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Issue 1 - A different kettle of fish

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002

 

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A different kettle of fish

Scotland Magazine editor Marcin Miller and a panel of tasters assess a selection of 10 smoked salmon

Received wisdom has it that the very finest smoked salmon is Scottish. But how do you know which to buy from the enormous selection available? Generally speaking, salmon is presented in hermetically sealed packaging: this means that the usual senses used in purchasing food are negated.

You can’t see it properly, or feel it or smell it. So what buying criteria can you engage? Price, packaging or reputation spring to mind but these are often unreliable – especially as taste is subjective. Scotland Magazine organised this tasting in an attempt to help you through this confusion. The samples are representative of what is out there: prices vary from £16 per kilo to nearly £60 per kilo. Most are farmed and cold-smoked but two samples were wild and one is hot smoked. Of course, different salmon might have different strengths. Some may be best in salads, others in sandwiches or even in pasta sauces. The tasting panel tried to reflect this.

A panel of varying degrees of tasting expertise was assembled to put some of these fish through their paces.

THE TASTERS
Laurie Black is a restaurateur and Chairman of Taste of Scotland
Tom Bruce-Gardyne is a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh
Geraldine Coates is a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh
David Dempsey is Chef at Amaryllis
Charles MacLean is Scotland’s best-known whisky writer
Lennox Morrison is a journalist turned novelist
Roddy Martine is Contributing Editor of Scotland Magazine
Marcin Miller is Editor of Scotland Magazine
Fiona Nairn is General Manager at Amaryllis
Isabel Rutherford runs the Cook’s Bookshop in Edinburgh
Gerald Warner is an historian and columnist with Scotland on Sunday

THE VENUE
Amaryllis is the Glasgow restaurant of Britain’s most accomplished chef-patron Gordon Ramsay. Having achieved his first Michelin stars at a string of London establishments, Ramsay has turned his attention to his native Scotland, and has just been awarded a Michelin Star for Amaryllis. For further information, call +44 (0) 141 337 3434. Our thanks go to Fiona Nairn and her staff for hosting the tasting.

THE WEALD SMOKERY - Score 8.36 Gold Medal

Price: £10.50 / 225g (including postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £46.67
Mount Farm, Flimwell, East Sussex, TN5 7QL, England.
Tel +44 (0) 1580 879 601, fax +44 (0) 1580 879 564
http://www.wealdsmokery.co.uk
Availability: The Weald Smokery shop in Flimwell, selected delicatessens and farm shops (England), by mail order. Not available to USA/Canada.
Origin of salmon: North West coast of Scotland
Smoking process: over local oak in traditional brick kilns

This was the first salmon the panel tasted and was, coincidentally, the favourite. Seven out of 11 tasters voted this sample top. Its popularity was put most pithily by Lennox Morrison: ‘A classic smoked salmon with plenty of leaping-inyour-face attitude. May I have some more, please?’ This was echoed by Marcin’s reference to the salmon as ‘more-ish’. It wasn’t all undiluted praise, however, as Geraldine referred to a ‘slightly plastic texture’ before concluding that the sample was ‘extremely pleasant’. This contrasts with Gerald’s assessment that it was ‘very tender and melts in the mouth.’ Laurie was impressed by the ‘very good salmon flavour’. The lowest score and the sole dissenting voice came from Tom who found it ‘a little bit dumb and perhaps a little too oily.’ David and Fiona found the sample delicate and very pleasant. The theme of pleasantness was continued by Charlie, who particularly enjoyed the balance between smoke and fish. Isabel thought it a ‘delicious healthy fish with great taste and texture,’ however, a second taste was impossible for her as the other tasters had
beaten her to it. The last word must go to Roddy who found it ‘generally excellent’.

SALAR FLAKY SMOKED SALMON - Score 7.7 - Best Value Award

Price: £10.75/350g
Equivalent price per kilo: £30.71
Loch Carnan, South Uist, Outer Hebrides, HS8 5PD, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1870 610 324 or Fax +44 (0) 1870 610 369
http://www.salar.co.uk
http://www.thescottishgrocer.com/salmon (USA)
info@terredecosse.com (France)
Availability: Good delicatessens and food halls (UK) or by mail order
Origin of salmon: Loch Carnan, South Uist
Smoking process: over a variety of wood shavings

The ringer in the team: nine of our samples were cold smoked and this was the exception. This was, of course, noticed immediately by the panel who reacted very favourably and scored it into second place. It is worth stating that the tasters found it difficult to compare hot smoked with cold smoked. The only recurrent criticism was of dryness which was picked up by Marcin, Roddy and Charlie. Fiona found it ‘dry but juicy’ whereas Laurie thought it was ‘moist without being oily’. Many tasters came up with their own serving suggestions for this sample. Marcin felt it would be ‘good flaked into salads or kedgeree’, Geraldine thought the ‘quite rough, gritty texture would mix well with traditional accompaniment of brown bread and lemon’. Roddy and Lennox preferred it as a starter, in Lennox’s case ‘to a romantic dinner’. Tom wanted his with scrambled eggs. Finally, Gerald felt it would be ‘almost a main course in its own right.’

JOHN ROSS JUNIOR SMOKED SALMON - Score 7.32 - Best Value Award

Price: £7.25/ 250g (including postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £29.00
84 Sinclair Road, Aberdeen, AB11 9PP, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1224 876 677 or Fax +44 (0) 1224 873 301
http://www.johnrossjr.com
Availability: Selected hotels, restaurants and delicatessens (UK), not available to USA/Canada
Origin of salmon: Shetland Islands
Smoking process: traditional brick kilns

Generally appreciated by the whole panel, this sample impressed with its overall balance although the texture came in for a little criticism. Gerald echoed the thoughts of others with his assessment: ‘too oily but splendid flavour. Good texture.’ Fiona enjoyed it too but was let down by the texture, referring to a ‘nice sweet flavour but slightly too crumbly / slimy.’ David was positive in his appraisal: ‘Texture slightly soft. Pleasant on the nose, taste very good. Not overpowering.’ Tom was unusually effusive as this sample tickled his fancy: ‘beautiful firm flesh. The gentle tang of smoke is in harmony with the sweet flavours of the salmon. Not as shy as some: plenty of flavour. Perhaps a little salty at the end.’ Lennox was unequivocal in her praise: ‘No complaints. Awell-brought up smoked salmon which would slip down easily in most company.’ Charlie’s succinct summary says it all: ‘Good texture, well-balanced flavour. First-rate.’

EDINBURGH SMOKED SALMON - Score 6.77

Price: £6.50 / 200g (including postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £32.50
1 Strathview, Dingwall Business Park, Dingwall, Ross-shire IV15 9XD, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1349 860 600 or Fax +44 (0) 1349 860 606
Availability: Mail order. Available to USA/Canada for larger orders
Origin of salmon: West coast of Scotland
Smoking process: over oak and beech

One panellist voted this their top salmon and another made this one joint top. However, it clearly divided our tasters as, by contrast, two of them only awarded it four out of 10, a fine illustration of how subjective tasting is. The overall consensus pointed to impressive texture but disappointing palate. Geraldine enjoyed the texture, but found the sample ‘lacking in flavour with little true ‘smokiness’ characters.’ Laurie agreed with Roddy’s assessment: ‘Good texture, not so strong in taste. Good chewability.’ David found the palate delicate rather than disappointing, however, Charlie interpreted this as ‘flavourless’. To finish on the positive, Lennox thought it ‘classy’ and Marcin was effusive: ‘Delicious texture with a delicate, slightly salty tang. Clean with good flavour. Clean finish. Scores highly for chomp factor.’

DUNKELD SMOKED SALMON - Score 6.73

Price: £12.50 / 250g (excluding postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £50
Springwells Smokehouse, Brae Street, Dunkeld, Perthshire PH8 0BA, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1350 727 639 or Fax +44 (0) 1350 728 760
http://www.dunkeldsmokesalmon.com
Availability: Selected hotels, restaurants and mail order. Available to USA/Canada
Origin of salmon: Lunan Bay, east coast of Scotland
Smoking process: over oak dust and whisky barrel chips

This was the 10th and last salmon for our panel but was different enough for them to find plenty to say. The difference was probably due to the fact that it was a wild salmon. Marcin remarked that the ‘colour and friable texture [are] akin to number seven’, the only other wild sample. The professionals also recognised this: Laurie felt the texture was a giveaway, whereas David noted citrus and smoke on the nose, and the ‘dry, crumbly texture and lightness of colour suggest maybe wild salmon.’ Overall the fish was felt to be a little on the dry side. The panel was split by the taste of the fish with comments ranging from ‘rather bland’ (Geraldine) to ‘characterful flavour’ (Gerald) and from ‘surprising citric flavour’ (Fiona) to ‘somewhat dull and meaty (bresaola)’ (Charlie). Lennox felt that the salmon was ‘slapping with flavour and salt.’

RR SPINK & SONS - Score 5.09

Price: £4.80 / 200g (excluding postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £24.00
Kirkton Estate, Arbroath DD11 3RD, Scotland.
Tel: +44 (0) 1241 872 023
Availability: Mail order. Available to USA/Canada
Origin of salmon: Shetland Islands / NW Scotland
Smoking process: over oak and hardwood, with salt and demerara sugar used in curing

This sample looked the part but was generally felt not to deliver. In particular, the oiliness of the texture drew comment. David found it too oily. Marcin referred to ‘an oily texture and slightly raw tasting in the bite.’ Tom, Charlie and Fiona also found a rawness. It was felt to be ‘too fishy’ by Charlie, Marcin, Geraldine and Tom. The finish or after-taste was considered too salty by nearly all the tasters. Isabel tried to concentrate on the good aspects. She thought the sample ‘may be tail-end – probably great added to kedgeree.’ Other panellists struggled to accentuate the positives. Again, the final word goes to Roddy: ‘definitely not outstanding.’

HALLIDAY & LLOYD WILD SMOKED SALMON - Score 4.64

Price: £14.85 / 250g 4.64 (excluding postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £59.40
Freepost SCO6952, Alness, IV17 0BR, Scotland (UK customers only), or Graywalls House, Ecclesgreig Road, St Cyrus, Montrose DD10 0BH, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1349 892 055 or Fax +44 (0) 1349 892 059
http://www.hallidayandlloyd.co.uk
Availability: Mail order
Origin of salmon: North Esk river, NE Scotland
Smoking process: over hard oak chips in a traditional Torry kiln

Certainly the most exquisitely presented fish on display (and the most aggressively priced) – but did it deliver? In short, no. This is expensive salmon as it is one of only two wild fish being put through its paces in our tasting. This was spotted immediately by David, the chef in our midst: ‘Lighter in colour which would suggest maybe wild salmon.’ Most tasters found something positive to say but it was generally tempered by allusions to an unattractive aftertaste and many references to excessive saltiness: Laurie referred to ‘good texture, great flavour’ but found this giving way to an ‘unpleasant aftertaste’. Geraldine enjoyed the ‘excellent full flavour’ but the aftertaste was of ‘smelly socks’. Roddy also picked up on the smelly feet theme. Fiona was put off by the pungency of the fish – a quality picked up by Marcin, as well. Charlie summed up the general feeling very graphically: ‘Pleasant flavour, then elephant-house aftertaste spoiling it.’

DUNDONNELLMILD HIGHLAND CURE SMOKED SALMON - Score 4.69

Price: £10.00 / 250g (including postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £40.00
Freepost SCO195, Dundonnell, Garve, Ross-shire IV23 2QZ Scotland (UK customers only), or Sea View, Dundonnell, Garve, Ross-shire IV23 2QZ
Tel: +44 (0) 1854 633 317 or Fax: +44 (0) 1854 633 370
http://www.smokedsalmon.uk.com
Availability: Mail order, available to USA/Canada
Origin of salmon: Mostly Shetland Islands
Smoking process: Mixture of oak and beech fine sawdust which is environmentally friendly

Tasters’ comments suggest that this salmon was, at best, mundane. Some of our panellists were a little more outspoken than that. Again, Marcin was relatively charitable: ‘Inoffensive but uninspiring.’ Geraldine referred to ‘insubstantial flavour with a synthetic aftertaste.’ Gerald was equally unimpressed: ‘Run of the mill. Not very exciting.’ David was of the opinion that the ‘strong taste of dried fish lingers too long in mouth’ and Roddy felt it was ‘not very interesting’. Tom, Charlie and Fiona agreed that the flavour was ‘bland’ and even ‘dull’. Lennox was candid stating it ‘Looks like smoked salmon but tastes of nothing.’ Isobel summed up the panel’s feelings: ‘Not a great character – easily forgotten.’

SADDLETREE - Score 4.05

Price: £4.50 / 250g (including postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £18.00
34 Jameson Court, Moreton-inMarsh, Glos GL56 0EW, England
Tel: +44 (0) 1608 651 405
Availability: Selected gourmet shops, restaurants and hotels
Origin of salmon: Inverness, Scotland
Smoking process: over beech

Unfortunately, this sample was not a favourite for the panel. Neither the appearance nor the nose of the salmon was the cause of the low marks, although Fiona thought it looked ‘very oily’. The panel was split on the topic of texture. Geraldine found it ‘chewy and slightly unpleasant’, Tom asserted that it was ‘unctuous and slimy’ whereas Gerald called it ‘glutinous’. David felt that ‘it lacked texture’. On the other hand, Isabel and Charlie both enjoyed the texture. Sadly, it was the palate and aftertaste that let this fish down. If Laurie’s notes were direct (‘disappointing, not fresh salmon taste, chemical aftertaste, mass-produced?’), Tom’s were even more so: ‘Almost faint taste of soap and strange off flavours. Pass the spittoon.’ Marcin thought the sample was the opposite of ‘more-ish’ and Fiona found it ‘very raw and greasy. Tastes of the packet.’ Lennox summed up the panel’s opinion – ‘A cut-price taste. Not worth opening the fridge for.’

COLN VALLEYTRADITIONAL SMOKED SALMON - Score 4.00

Price: £5.50 / 250g (excluding postage and packaging)
Equivalent price per kilo: £22.00
Dovecot Workshops, Barnsley Park, Cirencester, Glos GL7 5EG, England.
Tel: +44 (0) 1285 740 311 or Fax: +44 (0) 1285 740 411
http://www.colnvalley.co.uk
Availability: Selected London retailers, such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols and mail order. Not available to USA/Canada
Origin of salmon: West coast Scotland, near Oban
Smoking process: Updated version of the traditional brick kiln

Something of an also-ran in this tasting. Initial impressions were positive: many tasters were impressed and seduced by the appearance and texture of the sample but felt let down by the taste. Geraldine’s opinion was typical: ‘Robust orange colour. Chemical unpleasant aftertaste. Good texture almost makes up for synthetic taste – but not quite.’ Tom felt the colour was ‘almost fluorescent’ (and went on to ask whether it glows in the dark) and Laurie found the texture ‘plastic’. The only truly practical comments came from Marcin and Fiona who both suggested that this sample would work best as ‘sandwich salmon’. Again, reflecting the subjective nature of tasting, comments ranged from ‘quite unpleasant’ (Laurie) to ‘not good’ (Roddy) and from ‘not very interesting’ (Gerald) to ‘nothing special’ (David). Charlie noticed a ‘mouldy taste’. Not for the first time, the most charitable was Marcin: ‘You wouldn’t send it back, but uninspiring.’