H. Forman & Son, London Cure Smoked Salmon

BY OLIVER MACMAHON | 2 MARCH 2019

I am sitting across from Lance Forman, the owner and managing director of H. Forman & Son, the oldest smoked salmon company in the world. We’re in his office in Hackney Wick, London. It’s a small factory on the appropriately named ‘Fish Island,’ flanked by growing residential redevelopments. The area is largely barren of foot traffic and cranes loom large overhead. Lance sits forward on the edge of his seat. He is enthusiastic, speaking of his family’s company and its long history, yet he is also somewhat bemused by the current state of the smoked salmon industry and his competition. I am oblivious to either’s actuality and am curious to learn more.

 

H. Forman & Son was founded in 1905 by Lance’s great grandfather, a Russian-Jewish immigrant from Odessa, Crimea. Living in London, he was a part of an Eastern European community-based in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham, who started smoked salmon businesses and shared their traditional customs with locals, specifically what is now referred to as the London Cure method. Lance notes, “A lot of people think that smoked salmon is an ancient Scottish tradition. It’s not. It only really boomed in Scotland in the last thirty years.”

The company grew exponentially in the 1920s when they began to source fish from Billingsgate market, specifically salmon from Scotland. Previously, salmon had been imported in barrels of saltwater from the Baltic States, which took over 3 months to transport. The salmon sourced from Scotland was much fresher when delivered and of a generally higher quality. In our conversation, Lance often touts it as the “king of fish,” and proudly shows me a photo of his grandfather with a 34-kilo specimen.

 

The smoked salmon industry in London continued to flourish steadily thereafter until the 1970s when new farming practices were introduced in Scotland. The British government, keen to maximise a new potentially lucrative export industry, invested heavily in grants for Scottish businesses. These businesses diversified and took up smoking salmon themselves, introducing new machinery in the process to lessen production and handling costs. As a result, the vast majority of the traditional smokehouses in London went out of business, unable to properly compete with expensive London overheads. H. Forman & Son, however, fought on, steadfast in their commitment to traditional methods of production.

These days, Lance tells me, the company is competitive, but often undercut by businesses with poor practices and overtly financial priorities. He lists off his issues with their production processes at ease, determinedly claiming these businesses have bastardised the reputation of his product by “selling water at the price of salmon.” His explanation is precise and detailed. I can tell that he’s explained this line of thought many times before. And this, he openly admits, ruminating on numerous occasions where he has been publicly outspoken on the topic, challenging others, defending the tradition he and his family hold dear.

 

Essentially, Lance explains, rivalling companies from Scotland and Norway seem to be taking advantage of consumers, encouraging misconceptions about smoked salmon to sell lower quality products; specifically the commonly believed notion that smoked salmon should taste of smoke. This, Lance argues, is widespread and damaging to the industry at large as it is effectively putting off punters. He suggests that smoked salmon wasn’t ever meant to taste of smoke. The practice of smoking salmon only began as a preservation method and that traditionally the outer protective layer of the fish, which normally holds this smokey flavour, would be removed before distribution and consumption. This practice is still kept by H. Forman & Son.

Lance says that people find competing companies’ output “revolting” and “slimy.” He is clearly a confident individual with a bone to pick, and I’m not entirely sure what to think at this point in the conversation. I, myself, have many times enjoyed eating the smoked salmon he speaks of; specifically appreciating the smokey flavour he tells me is wrong. He focuses in on the fact that his great grandfather’s London Cure method concentrates the flavour of the wonderful Scottish salmon and that this is far more appropriate for fine dining, being clean and crisp to taste. He says that many producers don’t follow this belief, instead of injecting the fish with water, or wet brining, compromising taste so as to maximise each fish’s weight and wholesale value. These practices cause the fish’s flesh to not properly become tacky. This is a very important factor to any preservation-focused method of smoking salmon as it allows the fish’s outer layer to connect to smoke particles and develop the aforementioned protective seal called the pellicle. Instead, the smoke flavours the water on the wet surface of the fish’s flesh and draws through it via osmosis, adding a distinct bitterness. Lance states that many companies will add sugar to the initial brine to balance this out and that they also use the ‘smoke and sugar’ flavour profile to mask poorer quality fish and possible over-brining, ostensibly done to increase shelf life. Some producers, he suggests, don’t even smoke the salmon at all and only spray it with smoke flavouring post-curing.

Listening to Lance’s criticisms, I’m somewhat convinced but have a nagging suspicion in my mind that it doesn’t entirely add up and that there are alternative possibilities not mentioned. Are there not producers that actually choose alternative methods because they believe they’re better and produce a nicer overall product? Many people enjoy smokey smoked salmon and aren’t actually interested in what was done before. Many people don’t have an attachment to archaic ideas of fine dining. Think stern French classics, pressed linen and gloved waiters. It is not always preferable over alternatives, and frankly, one can be swayed to either approve or disapprove via personal taste. What’s the solution to this conundrum? I’m not exactly sure and ultimately think I can leave the question unanswered.

 

Before the end of our meeting, Lance briefly leaves the room and returns with a small plate of smoked salmon. I don’t have to be offered it twice and quickly take a slice. Of course, it is incredibly delicious. It’s a great example of keeping things simple, focusing on providing a clean salmon flavour, and succeeding. Frankly, it reminds me of high-quality sashimi in the best way possible. Lance then tells me about the future of H. Forman & Son. He says that they’ll “just carry on as before,” that they won’t change their “core philosophy,” that this philosophy will guide them to where they eventually want to get to. I’m not entirely sure where that is, but Lance says he values two things: his own idea of quality and his family’s reputation. I can see he wholeheartedly believes this and as we part ways, I reflect on the importance of history and lineage. I also feel like eating more smoked salmon.

H. Forman & Son, London Cure Smoked Salmon can be found stocked at Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Whole Foods.

For their full range of Salmon products, visit their website: www.formanandfield.com

As well as their London cure smoked salmon, they also sell unique products like beetroot cured salmon, salmon jerky, salmon oil and smoked salmon roe.