The Pished Fish Smoked Salmon

Posted: 06 Apr, 2019
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I first heard of “The Pished Fish” from our friends over at Fin & Farm. They use this incredible and slightly wacky smoked salmon in their “Sussex Hamper Co” hamper boxes. Usually it comes in 100g vacuum sealed packets that really show off the various varieties of cured salmons vibrant colours. -The design and branding of the packaging oozes with class and hints at the slightly off-the-cuff wit and off-the-wall flavour of this wonderful product. However, for the Café we order in the whole sides, unsliced and untrimmed primarily to reduce the cost but also gives us a little more control in terms of portioning. 

Coincidently a mate of mine, David Charbit had also just been doing a photoshoot for “The Pished Fish” at the same time with food stylist Rob Morris (all good Sussex lads) so through the powers of social media they were on my radar big time. 

Needless to say, I wanted a chunky slice of this action so invited owner, James Eagle down to Hove for a visit and a tasting at the café. From that day on, I’ve been hooked.  

 

Friday 3am… 

This isn’t the first time I have arisen from blissful sleep before the dreaded seagull’s morning chorus, alas, it doesn’t get any easier.  

My mate Stephen and I are leaving Hove at 0330hrs in order to meet James Eagle, owner of “The Pished Fish” at the J.Bennett stand at Billingsgate to see where he collects his pre-order of “Loch Duart” salmon.  

It is a little extravagant to go all this way at this hour, frankly, to see James make a card transaction and attempt to make the J.Bennett vendor crack a smile (a futile endeavour.) Having said that, for a cook, the sacrifice of an early start to get to Billingsgate fish market in good time is a small price to pay.  

0515hrs 

We arrive in good time, so have a wander around the some ninety-eight stalls comprised of 40 vendors and 30 shops. The sheer variety and number of fish coming in to this small fish market, nestled below the financial giants, GIANT buildings is quite a site. Porters bark at you to watch your back, stall owners are calling out price per kilo of the latest catches and there is an omnipresent mumuration of banter and excitement (as well as the odd “F*ck” this and “C*nt” that…) It really does feel like a trading floor in the financial district, which is exactly what it is aside from the sleezy suits, one liners and stench of Jupe Pour Homme… Prefer the smell of fish… 

0530hrs 

James arrives in good spirits even at this ungodly hour. After he has attempted to make the J. Bennett tradesman hint at the prospect he may have a sense of humour (fail) he pays and arranges for his six boxes of Loch Duart Salmon and two boxes of trout to be put in his van by a porter and we have a chance to discuss why he chooses this salmon in particular. 

Loch Duart are one of the few fish farms in Scotland that are still SCOTTISH owned (many are now Norwegian owned) and are a byword for salmon welfare, quality and sustainability. Their diet is predominantly marine based including, shrimp, krill and squid and is modestly supplemented with MSC approved (Marine Stewardship Council) fish feed (basically more small fish!).  

They also give the salmon much greater space to swim in comparison to most fish farms as the breed is genetically identical to wild Atlantic salmon which are far more athletic yet retain a high fat content which contributes to the “melt in your mouth” texture. Much like a recently retired rugby player… still butch but with that definite paunch developing from too many beers down the local pub to catch up on. There is some seasonal variations in flavour and texture with the salmon because of the changes in natural food sources available and water temperature which is tribute to the hands-off approach practices implemented by Loch Duart.  

Of course, there are seasonal changes in demand too especially around Christmas but due to their very loyal customer base they retain a consistent price throughout the year which is advantageous when it comes to cash flow and financial forecasting for small businesses. The Loch Duart salmon also have PGI status (Protected Geographical Indication) and TSG (Traditional Species Guaranteed). This helps to promote and protect the names of natural production of agricultural foodstuffs.  

No doubting their credentials then…  

0600hrs 

We leave James and agree to meet him back at the smoke house in Upper Dicker but not before I’ve bought a box of Maldon Oysters (my favourite) for a spot of car boot breakfast. Ever the bonviveur… 

0945hrs 

Google maps is rubbish. I kid you not it took us three and a half hours to get back Vs James’ two! After assuring James we had not stopped for a McDonalds breakfast we head over to the filleting area where the salmon are guess what; filleted and prepared for curing. We are also introduced to Iliana (Food technician) and Neil (Chief booze mixer and all-round great guy). 

The filleting process at first glance is simple. But as with all production line style processes the devil is in the detail. If one is aiming for high output in minimal time, wastage is increased. “Wastage” is another way of saying “money down the shitter” and vice versa. So great care and time is taken by James to fillet each side of the salmon sparingly, keeping as close to the spine and collar as possible.  

Area’s too close to the bone and tail tend to be slightly chewy, however, being that there is still a curing and smoking process to complete before trimming and packaging, having some excess is advantageous as it will account of some weight loss due to shrinking and moisture loss and can be trimmed off later. If one started with the perfect fillet it would still require trimming thus losing what would have been valuable flesh. I apply a similar principle when explaining the recent development of “Dad-bod”… always good to have a bit spare. 

(The carcasses are disposed of at this moment in time however an effort is being made to distribute them to restaurants for use in fish stocks as they are extremely rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, collagen, iodine and amino acids. James is also trialling a range of “Pished Pate” using the fat rich belly offcuts.) 

Once the two fillets have been freed, Iliana explains to me why three holes are cut from the skin. This is so that the salt, sugar and flavoured cure can penetrate the fillet from top and bottom, giving and even distribution. The cures themselves are predominantly made up of dead sea salt and demerara sugar (this is a dry cure as opposed to a brine) and into these the boozy nuances can be added as well as their aromatic dance partners.  

 

(Salmon skin is extremely resilient. In the past it has been used for belts, flail and door hinges!) 

 

A layer of the cure is placed on top and bottom of the fillets which are laid skin side down in trays. The thicker ends of the fillets are more generously covered and vice versa. After they are completely boozed up the salmon is then left to cure for up to sixty hours, extracting moisture, imparting flavour an preserving the meat. A full-on three-day bender.  

 

(Salt creates an environment that kills most harmful living fungi and bacteria that can occur in food if left in less favourable conditions due to its Hypertonicity. Hypertonicity causes an osmotic gradient which in layman’s terms means vital moisture in bacterial cells are extracted by the salt, destroying the cell.)  

Tribute to James’ pursuit of excellence is his sacrifice of water loss from the salmon after it is cured and what the UK food industry require as a minimum water extraction.  

The department of environmental health advise a minimum of 10% loss of water by weight of salmon if it is to be sold as cured. This means that a large majority of smoked salmon producers will retain water as close to the minimum requirement as possible to preserve as much weight as possible to increase their profit margins.  

Good for business, granted, but at a detriment to the end product. Many smoked salmon products we buy on the shelves actively retain as much moisture as possible. Paired with an intensively farmed salmon the result is the all too familiar oozing of oily, watery, smelly brine seeping out of the salmon once the vacuum packet is pierced. Not nice for your Christmas day starter not to mention you have bought water at the price of salmon! 

In James’ process, up to 10% of water is lost in the first curing, before the smoking which can remove up to another 10% depending on the length of time and heat used during the smoking. (This is another reason the Loch Duart salmon is a cut above; its athletic yet fatty nature means it can handle a more aggressive curing.)   

The following Monday… 0930hrs 

I return to the smokery with my mate and photographer, David Charbit. Now the sides of salmon have been cured over the weekend it’s time to get smoking… 

James has painstakingly selected the types of woodchip using in smoking each boozy nuance of fish. He explains that fragrant woods are almost exclusively hardwoods, with the careful exception of spruce.  

Typically, soft woods are very sappy and burn at low temperature which can cause staining and acrid bitterness. On the flip site hardwoods burn at a higher temperature allowing their aromas to gradually permeate through the smoke. Common woods used are from fruit trees such as, cherry, apple and juniper as well as oak, beech and maple which also release essences of flavour. 

So, what happens when wood burns? (Geek alert!)  

Firstly, it starts drying out. When heat an oxygen is present it will ignite and the remaining moisture in the woodchips begin to boil and evaporates. Once all of the moisture is gone, volatile gases are released which, under normal circumstances would combust into flame.  

However, the combustion is controlled and smoke forms containing drops of liquid, soot and other chemicals. The Soot and vapor make the smoke visible however the other chemicals suspended within it are where the majority of flavour comes from. It is the smokers discerning pallet that determines the ratio if each woodchip. Some will burn quicker than others and some are stronger in flavour.  

They also have the tool of the trade, an AFOS Maxi smoker. It’s basically a big metal box with three draws for woodchips and a fan to draw the smoke through the chamber. One can adjust the draw of the smoke, the temperature of the chamber and amount of smoke recycled. Depending on the time of year, external temperature, type of chip, alignment of Jupiter and probably the number of boozy infusions mixed that day, James, adjusts the variables. All top secret I’m afraid! (around 4 hours in a cool smoke is his most generous offer!) But it smells incredible, trust me! 

 

Four hours later… stay with me guys we’re almost done. 

Opening the twin steel doors is like crashing the party at a Bob Marley reunion. POOF. Ughuh Aughuh. Within the stoners chamber are the transformed salmon fillets. They look slightly dryer and are firmer to the touch. They are removed and left to cool. 

AND we’re back to slicing. Once the salmon is cool it is lightly coated in a final layer if the key herbs and boozy concoctions relevant to its theme. It is then controversially sliced perpendicular to the grain (which actually makes way more sense… for the same reason your bavette steak is sliced for you at the restaurant) and delicately presented in the form of vacuum packs. It really does look the part.  

We are given the chance to sample all of the funky flavours and the “flavour of the month” and I can assure you it tastes every bit the part too. The boozy nuances are a delicate compliment and add a cleansing quality to the fat rich smoked salmon. The smoking is delicate and adds another layer of complexity but does not steal the show entirely. To those a little less adventurous I assure you, don’t be afraid, try it. If in doubt, they do a booze free option too called “designated driver”.  

These guys really are producing, in my humble opinion, the best smoked salmon on the market today. They show real courage to adding some fun and imagination to a tradition that goes back centuries. To be different always attracts some negativity and there are some in the orthodoxy of salmon smoking that believe he is a born again heretic and should be smoked at the steak. But the huge growing demand for The Pished Fish smoked salmon speaks for itself. So, lighten up guys, have a drink!  

You can find it on the shelves of Fortnum and Mason, Selfridges and Partridges as well as V&H Café… Sign up to their members club and you will receive their latest concoctions in the post ready for your Sunday brunch. And don’t be shy with it! Its awesome used in an eggs royale or as a sandwich with some leaves and a scraping of horseradish or wasabi between hunks of sourdough! But my boring personal favourite is simple scrambled local organic eggs on fresh toast and a few slices of delicious, intoxicating “Erik the Red”.  

With Christmas approaching all too quickly, I assure you it’s the dish to start with this year but get your orders in fast…