A true artisan, who focuses on minute details and dedicates his time to repeating the same painstaking process again and again, Ole-Martin Hansen is a very modern, very old-fashioned fish smoker. We ask him how and why he does it.
Many food producers claim to employ artisanal techniques, but Ole-Martin Hansen is the real thing. He is a salmon smoker, based in Stoke Newington in North London, employing traditional methods and demonstrating true commitment to creating a product that is absolutely the best it can be. Here, he talks to Flavour about his artisanal values, how he sources and prepares his fish, and why it’s important to keep small food businesses in the family.
How did you get into the world of salmon smoking?
By listening to my family. I was a sound artist and had a studio in Stoke Newington, but I became tired of having to seek funding from altruistic sources – I wanted to be independent. My grandfather worked as a salmon smoker, and I used an old notebook of his to recreate his Norwegian smokehouse here in London. The details were all written down, including the high wind chamber where the salmon moves in the air; and also the family recipe. I spent about three months building everything, and then a year testing the processes. Now I’m very busy smoking salmon – but I am independent, and that’s great.
What is the process you follow?
I order the fish early in the week, and it arrives less than 48 hours after it has been caught. We fillet the salmon one by one, then salt them and leave them to cure for around 12 hours, depending on the size. We use Guérande fleur de sel from northwest France. Then we rinse the fish, one by one, and thread them up by hand, using needle and thread, to hang from hooks in the smoking chamber. We create the smoke by burning beechwood and juniper sourced from my brother’s farm. We don’t vacuum-pack the fish, and everything is done by hand, one fish at a time. There are a lot of other small details I can’t tell you, because they are part of our secret!
What difference do the specific details make to the flavour?
Smoking with beechwood adds a sweetness to the salmon, especially compared with oak, which is rather sour. The mineral content affects the taste, so it doesn’t taste metallic. I mix in 30 per cent juniper. In addition, my grandfather believed that if the fish moved as they smoked it would affect the proteins and the enzymes. His theory was that the energy of the movement would be put into the flesh of the salmon. You can’t measure it, but the taste is incredible, at least.
How committed are you to the purity of the process?
I built the smoking chamber myself. I built everything myself. All my supplies come from family businesses. They are more likely to have integrity, and to care about their local community. A shareholder business philosophy is about squeezing money out of the business, whereas family businesses are more into keeping it for the next generation. I work with a salmon farm in the Faroe Islands, who pay attention to every stage of production. They care about things the same way that I do; they have a good reputation and don’t cut corners. The farming of salmon is inevitable – it’s not sustainable to use wild salmon. Salmon is a very nutritious food when it is farmed the right way, but it’s very important that governments regulate the farms closely.
It sounds like a lot of hard work!
It’s very focused. At the beginning there were some days I just wanted to lie on the sofa. Now I have help, but there was a time when I did everything and I didn’t even have time to look at the weather. I went to Norway to spend time with friends, and I just sat and watched the rain out of the window for a few days. It felt like such a luxury. I spent over a year refining my process, then I started working with chefs, to get their feedback and develop the product with them, to make sure the flavours and texture were right. We can do 160 salmon in 24 hours. We send out 4,000 salmon in two weeks at Christmas, which means I’m working a few hundred hours a week. That’s the time of the year when we make our profit, when all the work we’ve done through the year promoting the salmon at events pays off. As work goes, it is very labour-intensive but also very rewarding.
Would you consider yourself to be an artist, still, or more of an artisan?
The idea of the artisan is interesting, because an artisan is focused on one thing, and continuously trying to improve one recipe. You use all your skills and you are constantly challenged. There’s never a boring moment – well, some moments are, but there’s always something you can do better. You can make something that has great integrity. There are not many real artisans. Lots of people do hundreds of different things, but the artisan is the person who decides to stay with one thing. You have to dedicate your life to it.
Do you have plans for the future?
People ask me “Is this for life?”, and I don’t know. I have so many things I want to do. But perhaps the next thing will be to take a mobile smokehouse and go travelling – take a container to smoke salmon in, and be a nomad for a while. I’d also like to find partners in cities around Europe, and start other smokehouses in Paris and Barcelona.
OLE’S FIVE FAVOURITE FLAVOURS
- Salmon on sourdough bread with dill and crème fraîche.
- Salmon fishcakes made by his grandmother.
- Cod, straight from the sea, simply poached.
- Freshly boiled prawns on good bread with a beer.
- Pancakes with blueberries.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here