My fingertips were oily and smelled of smoke. Leaving my hands near
my nose and inhaling deeply, I luxuriated in this private reminiscence of my
day, as the nearly empty, late afternoon train to London’s Paddington Station gained
speed. Whizzing past ancient stone
houses abutting bran colored fields and forests, and walled pastures containing
wooly sheep and prized equines, the occasional church steeple punctured the whitish
gray clouds hanging low in the winter sky. Fancy British cars impatiently
idled behind the blinking lights and barriers to the rail tracks while awaiting
our passing through their tiny town in the Cotswolds region of England. Thin blonde women drummed the wheels of their
Range Rovers with long, manicured fingers while men swathed in Burberry and
Barbour announced the area’s affluence.
It’s rumored the aristocracy, landed gentry and politicians boasting
homes here had the air traffic diverted from over the expanse of this
magnificent countryside so as not to disturb their idyllic peace.
Tucked into this
quintessential British scenery resides a highly opinionated, tall and bearded
Norwegian artisan producing sublime smoked salmon. After
pulling on an unfortunately fully legal rolled cigarette, he toured me through
the smokehouse, an airy wood and glass barn constructed to his detailed
specification; the entire operation nestled onto a corner of a larger farm
devoted to artisan food producers. Ole
had agreed to spend time with me, helping me to better understand the art of
smoking fish, utilizing the same techniques and recipe his great-grandfather
devised in 1923 in Kirkenes, a small town in Norway.
The glistening salmon arrives
fresh, within two days of being harvested from one of the last family-run,
sustainable farms in the Norwegian Arctic Ocean. The fish are immediately scaled and hand-fileted,
with pockmarks made on the skin, which allows the salt cure to better penetrate
the flesh. Hand-coated with both fleur
de sel and regular salt, the filets are left to cure for twelve hours. They’re then washed thoroughly of the salts,
threaded with cord, and hung in a cavernous, specially designed kiln to slowly
cold smoke for another twelve hours in a smoldering mix of pristine juniper and
beech woods, sourced from a special farm in Norway.
Inside the smoking chamber, Ole recreates
Norway’s temperature, air movement, and
humidity, all controlled by computer and pumped into the ornately tiled smoking
subjects the salmon to a strong ‘wind’, believing that keeping the fish moving throughout
the smoking process helps the enzymes, and thus the taste, to migrate through
the fish’s pink flesh.
The finished salmon
is cut vertically into forefinger sized pieces, akin to sashimi rather than the
paper-thin slices of salmon to which we’re more accustomed, allowing the earthy,
smoky flavors on the fish’s surface to be enjoyed, but also to better experience
the complex flavors of fish and ocean, which reside deeper within the
flesh. The sliced fish is then wrapped
in Japanese paper and delivered to markets and restaurants.
Grabbing my hand in his massive paw, Ole and I made a
date to fish for salmon off the California coast during the summer season, with
plenty of time spent hunched over my old smoker.
Returning to London, I walked
through an outdoor market where Ole’s fish is hawked, spread out like piles of
precious pink petals displayed on a rough-hewn wooden board bigger than a Spanish church door. The chunky slices of salmon rested atop thin wedges
of dark Norwegian bread, and were finished with fronds of fresh dill. Leaning against an unclaimed sliver of brick
wall in the pulsing market, I savored Ole’s craftsmanship; the balanced mosaic of
flavors from the brininess of salt, fish, and ocean; the buttery, rich
textures; the notes of earth, wood and smoke, which lingered on my tongue. Returning for a second piece, I realized my
fingertips bore the scent, yet again, of a Norwegian artist’s homage to earth, sky,
ocean, and the ancient wonders of smoke.