• Madeleine Feeny

Reading the Fridge Classics: Smoked Salmon

Bit of a posh one – or so it would have you believe, although smoked salmon isn’t nearly as expensive as it used to be, before salmon farming became widespread in the eighties. No longer prohibitively steep (thank god), it’s retained its luxurious reputation, perhaps partly due to its stranglehold on canapé menus where it's an easy, pretty no-brainer for time-strapped hosts.

In Walter Scott’s Waverley, published in 1814, it’s just one component of a dazzling breakfast: ‘He found Mrs Bradwardine presiding over the tea and coffee, the table loaded with warm bread, both of flour and barley, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, marmalade, and all the other delicacies which induced even Johnson himself to extol the luxury of a Scotch breakfast above that of all other countries.’

Although the eye-popping breadth of this spread veers perilously close to hotel buffet territory, I wholeheartedly applaud starting the day with the pink stuff. If your stomach is sturdy enough for hollandaise sauce first thing, Eggs Royale kicks things off in majestic style. Otherwise the classic scrambled eggs pairing never fails.

It’s also a rich yet delicate starter. In PG Wodehouse’s Blandings tale Pigs Have Wings, Sir Gregory Parsloe sits down to an epic meal ‘of the sort that sticks to the ribs and brings beads of perspiration to the forehead’. Smoked salmon is followed by mushroom soup, filet of sole, Hungarian goulash, mashed potatoes, buttered beets, buttered beans, asparagus with mayonnaise, ambrosia chiffon pie, cheese, fruit and petit fours – a gourmet extravaganza that gives today’s Michelin-starred tasting menus a run for their money. Meanwhile James Bond who has an eye for the finer things in life confesses to ‘a mania for really good smoked salmon’ while lunching with M in Moonraker.

It's aspirational, yet not unreachably so. In Nancy Mitford’s wartime spy comedy Pigeon Pie, ‘Fred and Sophia dined very sadly together at the Hyde Park Hotel…Fred could no longer afford oysters or pink champagne, so they had smoked salmon and claret instead.’ If that doesn’t bring a tear to the eye, who knows what will.

In Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, Prudence ‘chose a restaurant which was rather expensive, but frequented mainly by women, so that she felt no embarrassment at being alone…A dry Martini and then a little smoked salmon; she felt she could manage that.’ It's arguably the perfect delicacy for solo dining elegant but not flashy, nutritious but not boringly virtuous.

Among the best vehicles for smoked salmon (aka lox) is a chewy bagel loaded with cream cheese, a Jewish invention of pure genius. In Howard Jacobsen’s Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, Treslove feasts his eyes on his lover Hephzibah cooking: ‘A Jewish woman in her Jewish kitchen!… He reached for more of everything … the smoked salmon, the egg and onion, the chopped liver, the cheese that had no taste.’ Head north-east and you’ll find the same fish operating under yet another alias – gravlax. This salmon cured with salt, sugar and dill is a quintessential Scandinavian starter. My favourite ways with smoked salmon:

  • On a bagel with cream cheese at any hour of the day or night

  • In a simple pâté, blitzed with cream cheese, lemon juice, lemon zest and black pepper, with chopped dill (top image) and brown bread

  • On blinis with horseradish, crème fraîche, dill, spritz of lemon and black pepper

  • Stirred into linguine, with cream, dill, spinach, lemon juice and zest, and black pepper (bottom image)

  • At brunch, with scrambled eggs, avocado and granary toast (middle image)

  • Scandi-style with rye bread, pickled cucumbers, cured beetroot and a dill and mustard sauce

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