It’s a Tuesday morning in Stoke Newington, and Ole Hansen-Lydersen is playing jazz piano to his salmon. The fillets sway along in his smoking chamber, dancing in the gentle breeze from a fan.
“My grandfather believed that the energy of the wind would transfer to the salmon” Hansen-Lydersen says with utter sincerity. “Like linie aquavit, which crosses the equator twice in an oakwood barrel, he thought that salmon should keep moving. If something’s dead, it’s dead. But if it’s moving then there’s an energy which changes the characteristics of the taste.”
Ole Hansen-Lydersen is third generation Norwegian salmon-smoker. And he’s a purist. In 1923, his grandfather – a technical engineer – designed a smoking chamber using fans to create a high velocity loop of air which kept his salmon moving. So when Ole Hansen-Lydersen decided to move into the family business, he sought out his grandfather’s original designs, and built an exact replica of the smoking chamber. In Stoke Newington.
If something’s dead, it’s dead. But if it’s moving then there’s an energy which changes the characteristics of the taste.
“When I started, most people were like, ‘smoking salmon in the middle of London, are you crazy?’” laughs Hansen-Lydersen. But even he admits that the start was a little shaky – waiting on Balls Pond Road in the dead of night to catch a bus to Billingsgate Market and then carrying the fish back on a later night bus. “As people placed more orders, and cash started coming in, then I could afford to hire a Streetcar.” he says, chuckling at the thought of morning commuters heading to work in a fish-scented car.
The cravat-wearing, six foot-something, rubber-booted Norwegian happily admits that some people were cynical when he first set up his artisanal smoking business in residential north London. But Hansen-Lydersen proved sceptics wrong, and smoked 3,300 sides in December alone to fulfil Christmas orders.
Despite the increased workload – “I'm still recovering from the two weeks before Christmas when I worked 214 hours” – Hansen-Lydersen remains uncompromising in his approach. He salts each salmon individually, firstly covering it with a layer of fleur de sel de Guerande for taste, and then in vacuum salt, which acts as a sponge to draw out the moisture.
The cravat-wearing, six foot-something, rubber-booted Norwegian admits that some people sniggered when he first set up his artisanal smoking business
The salmon is left in the cure for twelve hours if the fish is 5 kilos, but 9-10 hours for a smaller fish. “Ideally, the salting temperature is 5-6°C, like an autumn day in Finnmark.” He says. “If it’s colder than 5°C, the salt doesn’t move round the flesh so quickly, so the salmon needs to be salted longer.”
After checking the salmon one-by-one to make sure they’ve been sufficiently cured, Hansen-Lydersen strings them up above a Victorian sink to wash off the salt with cold, low-pressure water, and then air-dries them for an hour. Next, the salmon are moved into the smoking chamber where they’re infused with a mixture of beechwood and juniper-flavoured smoke for ten hours.
Every salmon is different.” explains Hansen-Lydersen, who judges each stage of the process with the poke of an expert finger. “By the end, the salmon should feel hard like a piece of wood, not floppy like they are at the beginning.”
Despite sticking to traditional methods as much as possible, smoking salmon in the 21st century comes with a new set of problems which need addressing. “Farmed salmon is the only option” Hansen-Lydersen says. “The EU directive states that parasites from the wild fish are dangerous to humans, so they have to be frozen before smoking which is no good” he explains. Instead, he uses salmon farmed in the Faroe Islands by a family-run company who “have integrity, like myself.”
I remember eating my grandfather’s salmon when I was on the Arctic plain, trout fishing with my father by a lake
Bacterias such as listeria and botulism have also been associated with smoking salmon. But Hansen-Lydersen stresses that properly smoking and curing the salmon lowers the risk. “When I salt my salmon, it loses 30% of its weight” he says. “Big companies want the largest yield, so they inject the salmon with a salt solution instead. Then they spray the fish with flavoured smoke, rather than putting it in a chamber. Cutting corners like this means that the salmon isn’t properly preserved.”
He also suggests that the practice of vacuum-packing smoked salmon increases the dangers of listeria and botulism, which thrive in an airless, anaerobic environment. “Plastic packaging is like a greenhouse for bacteria” he says. Which explains Hansen-Lydersen wraps his in greaseproof paper instead.
The greaseproof paper, sealed with a sticker of Hansen-Lydersen’s self-designed company crest, serves more purpose than just hygiene though. It’s wound up in the nostalgia that fuels the Norwegian’s company. “I remember eating my grandfather’s salmon when I was on the Arctic plain, trout fishing with my father by a lake. It was layered on my mother’s homemade bread, and wrapped up in greaseproof paper – a sheet separating each slice, so you had to keep unwrapping it as you ate.”
“It was the most delicious thing you can ever think of. Because you’re eating this amazing taste of Finnmark, in the area of Kirkenes, surrounded by the right elements.” Hansen-Lydersen looks into the distance, misty-eyed. It may well taste best on the north tundra. But you know what – it tastes pretty good in Stoke Newington too.