Those of us who grew up in the days before salmon farming brought prices down, will remember it as the ultimate treat – reserved for restaurant meals, high teas and simchas.
It is a quintessentially Jewish fish - rivalled only by herring for a place in our hearts and history. So high does it sit in our esteem that we would pay good money for an audience with two of its purveyors.
On Sunday February 23, New York’s Mark Russ Federman and London’s Lance Forman – both the third generation of families who started smoked fish businesses on arriving from Eastern European shtetls – will be sharing a stage as part of Jewish Book Week.
Salmon smokehouse H Forman & Son was founded in Stepney Green in 1905 by Forman’s great grandfather Aaron, originally from Odessa, known here as Harry - the ‘H’ in H. Forman & Son. Now a modern - salmon-shaped - building housing smokehouse, restaurant, venue and gallery, it sits within a few hundred yards of London’s Olympic site.
On New York’s Lower East Side, Russ & Daughters offers cured, smoked and pickled fish and, in Federman’s own words “a generous helping of shmooze”.
Federman’s great-grandfather Joel founded the business – selling herrings from a barrel after his arrival in 1907 from Strzyzow - then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The immigrants were not alone in their choice of trade; Jews and fish have a lengthy history. Our Ashkenazi ancestors were thought to have started curing fish in medieval times in Germany – a practice we took east when we moved across Europe. The mass migration to the West in the 1900’s saw some of our forefathers making a living through fish smokehouses or by selling smoked and pickled fish.
Both men are passionate about smoked fish but each initially followed a totally different career path before joining the family business. Forman — training and practising as an accountant and Federman – as a lawyer.
“My grandparents and parents worked so hard to ensure that my generation, the third generation, could go to college and not smell fishy. The irony is that I did become a professional and still ended up in the business,” laughs Federman.
Federman, 68, handed his apron and knives to a fourth generation – his daughter, Niki Russ Federman and nephew, Joshua Russ Tupper – at the end of 2010, and has spent the last three years documenting his family’s life in fish in book - ‘Russ & Daughters, reflections and recipes from the house that herring built’.
So similar are their stories Forman laughingly admits “the book could be written about my family”.
There is nothing these two do not know about salmon – but how does smoked salmon compare with New York lox?
“They are different products” explains Federman. “In the early 1900’s, Baltic salmon was transported in heavy salt brine, as there was no refrigeration. The Jews of the lower East side, New York’s Jewish ‘Ghetto’, caught on to it and to shmaltz herring. The name comes from the Yiddish ‘laks’, from the German for lachs – which means salmon. Lox is pure salted salmon.”
“I spent years trying to educate my customers, as everybody in New York calls everything that is salmon ‘lox’” he grumbles.
Federman explains that with refrigeration, fish could be frozen. Salted fish was joined by smoked. But US smoked salmon differs from European.
“US smoked salmon is wet cured – with water, salt and sugar – as opposed to the dry cure – salt rubbed directly into the flesh of the fish. Our salmon is softer and less salty.”
Forman points out that, as with many Ashkenazi foods, smoked salmon did not start out as a luxury item.
“It was about preserving, it was not a great gourmet food”.
He believes this changed with the use of Scottish salmon instead of Baltic, and with refrigeration, which allowed it to be transported on ice. This wild salmon was, says Forman, of “fantastic quality” and to complement it, his grandfather developed a mild cure, ‘the London Cure’.
“Something about the DNA of Scottish salmon really took to the smoking process. It is the UK’s only home grown gourmet food.”
The expensive wild salmon made the end product a luxury. Since the 1970’s, fish farming and mass production have brought prices down.
“99% of smoked salmon is now produced by people with no reverence or respect for the product” complains Forman. “People are no longer impressed by it as a luxury food.”
Whether smoked salmon has lost its exclusivity, its production and sale has occupied several generations and hopefully several more. And woe betide the hostess who leaves it off her high tea table.
Tickets for Smoked Salmon Kings at: www.kingplace.co.uk
Russ & Daughters Random House £16.99