Salmon Special: Slice of life learned from master carver

Alex Kasriel makes the cut with some expert tuition

By Alex Kasriel, June 18, 2009
Salmon stakes: Alex Kasriel working under Len Lawson’s guidance

Salmon stakes: Alex Kasriel working under Len Lawson’s guidance

Ever wondered why Jewish-style lox tastes better than Scottish smoked salmon? Len Lawson has the answer — and the 87-year-old should know, as he has been cutting salmon for almost 30 years.

Mr Lawson attributes the delicate flavour of heimishe lox to its wafer-thin slicing. Because of this, the fat rapidly melts in the mouth and the flavour is let loose before chewing.

Perfecting the slicing technique takes years of practice. It is certainly not something you can pick up in an hour or two. So my expectations were low when I met him at Platters Deli in Temple Fortune, where he still works at least two days a week, for instruction in salmon slicing.

As with many specialist skills, machines are taking over. And according to Mr Lawson, not enough caterers know the best slicing method.

Smoked salmon was brought to the UK by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. The term lox derives from lachs in German and laks in Yiddish, meaning “salmon”. The immigrants cured, pickled and smoked, importing their salmon from the Baltic in barrels of brine, then smoking it for London’s Jewish community.

So it stands to reason that we Jews know how to do it best. Mr Lawson handed me the long slicing knife which he has always used to cut his fish. It needs to be “sharp as a scalpel”, he said. He uses a non-electric knife sharpener to hone the instrument to his exacting standards. It is neither a flat or serrated blade but instead, what is known as a granton edge. A serrated edge would shred the fish and a flat knife wouldn’t have the same springiness.

“The knife has to go where you want it to go, not where the knife wants it to go,” he insisted, effortlessly slicing a slither of salmon off a large (quite smelly) smoked fish and carefully laying it on to the transparent plastic sheet it will eventually be wrapped in. He quickly shaved off any fatty bits but these apart, none of the fish is wasted.
I held the fish with a two-pronged fork in my left hand and sliced with the right. Placing my forefinger against the other side of the knife blade to keep it steady, I flopped an inelegant slice of salmon thicker than a generous cheese slice on to the plastic.

Salmon slicing is clearly not as easy as the expert makes it look. “I call that a salmon steak,” laughed Mr Lawson, unsympathetically, as I fretted over my lack of expertise. “It’s OK, we can just do a bit of cosmetic surgery on it,” he suggested, although I think he was just being nice.

With the master starting me off by cutting into the fish, I fared a little better, but still struggled to keep the slice a consistent width, my knife plunging ever deeper into the flesh. Even laying it flat on the cling film proved a struggle as I fought a minor battle with the knife and fork and slippery smoked contents.

Paul McInerney, 45, the second generation salmon cutter who works with Mr Lawson at Platters, came to my rescue by using a slightly different technique — basically jigging the knife about more. But to be honest, the salmon information overload (if such a thing is possible) was just plain confusing.

All this cutting was making me hungry. So imagine my gratitude on being handed a bagel filled with the fish I had sliced, with an added dash of lemon and a sprinkle of black pepper. Just the way I like it.

“It’s the only food you can eat without restraint,” said Mr Lawson. Yet despite maintaining that salmon is full of goodness, he confessed to not having the stomach for it after being surrounded by it all day.
Judging by my slicing attempts, I definitely make a better salmon consumer, so I’ll stick to eating it.

Last updated: 9:34am, August 18 2009