First, bury your fish

Noth­ing packs the same aro­matic punch as a home-cured salmon flavoured with dill fronds and schnapps–and if you have too much, try poach­ing the left­overs

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Si­mon Hop­kin­son

Home-cured gravad­lax, served hot or cold, is worth the ef­fort, says Si­mon Hop­kin­son

THE de­li­cious Swedish cured-salmon dish known as gravad­lax (now more of­ten short­ened to the briefer, per­haps lazier, gravlax) means, bluntly, ‘buried salmon’. Gravad means ‘grave’ and lax—or the kosher lox—is the Swedish for salmon. As you might imag­ine, I be­come ir­ri­ta­bly per­plexed when­ever I see the tau­tol­ogy ‘salmon gravlax’ on a menu.

And, by the way, I am sim­i­larly be­wil­dered at the ap­pear­ance of an ‘ap­ple’ tarte Tatin or a ‘vanilla’ crème brûlée on a list of sweets. Do your home­work, I mut­ter to my­self, har­rumph­ing into my linen nap­kin.

It seems es­sen­tial—even po­lite —to find out the mean­ing of words and to un­der­stand the de­scrip­tions and the ori­gins of a recipe or dish. Just be­cause one has be­come used to the fa­mil­iar coq au vin (a cock­erel cooked in red wine) or osso buco (a bone with a hole that is cen­tral to a thick slice of braised veal shank) is no ex­cuse for not find­ing out what names re­ally mean. A Span­ish paella sim­ply refers to the thin, wide pan in which the fa­bled rice dish is cooked.

The first time I fash­ioned some gravad­lax, cur­ing the salmon with both salt and sugar, was many years ago, in Pem­brokeshire, us­ing a lo­cal sewin, the Welsh name for a sea trout. Then, the fish was plen­ti­ful and rod-caught; this was the early 1970s, after all, but the true sewin re­mains wild—although wildly ex­pen­sive—to­day.

Iron­i­cally, even only a few decades ago, the kitchen bud­get of a nor­mal, mid­dle-class house­hold used to see wild salmon as part of its nor­mal sum­mer ex­pen­di­ture. Fur­ther­more, it’s also said that 19th-cen­tury Scot­tish mill work­ers once de­manded not to be paid in wild salmon more than three times a week.

A sim­i­lar out­rage be­fell loyal staff in grand coun­try houses, who would re­quest that they might not be force-fed the pesky fish for below-stairs sup­pers all through the sum­mer.

A lit­tle while ago, and with a sim­i­lar glut of gravad­lax (I’d cured a whole side of salmon for a pho­to­shoot), I, too, had even­tu­ally tired of eat­ing the fish as it was, so I pon­dered how it might taste when cooked. Well, my dears, it was a reve­la­tion!

The light salt­ing of any fish fil­let be­fore cook­ing is, in it­self, a very good thing. About 20 min­utes for a good-size por­tion of fish should do it, turn­ing it over after 10 min­utes, then rins­ing it in cold wa­ter. The salt re­leases ex­cess mois­ture, so tight­en­ing the flesh. Once briefly poached or steamed, this re­veals flakes of fish so pearly, so suc­cu­lent, that one won­ders why one had never known this culi­nary trick.

With the gravad­lax, of course, the salt fac­tor is a lit­tle more pro­nounced—but to no ill ef­fect, be as­sured. To­gether with the sugar con­tent, the faint whiff of al­co­hol and the dill, the del­i­cately cooked fish is an ut­ter de­light.

You may sim­ply steam the fil­let on a deep plate: bring the wa­ter up to a boil, switch off the heat and leave in the resid­ual steam

With a glut of gravad­lax, I pon­dered how it might taste when cooked

for no more than 10 min­utes be­fore re­mov­ing, loosely wrap­ping in foil with a knob of but­ter and then al­low­ing to rest for a fur­ther 10 min­utes.

For an aro­matic poach, I half­fill a wide, shal­low pan with wa­ter (no salt needed) and add a gen­er­ous splash of white-wine vine­gar or cider vine­gar, a thinly sliced onion, a stick of chopped cel­ery, bay and a sprin­kle of white pep­per­corns. Cover the pan, then sim­mer for 20 min­utes. Turn off the heat, slide in the gravad­lax, cover once more and leave for 10 min­utes. Then, as above, drain and loosely wrap in foil with but­ter.

For both meth­ods, leave the skin be­neath at­tached as you carve the fil­let into thick slices, then lift off each serv­ing, be­fore dis­card­ing the skin.

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