His great-grandfather came to England from Russia in 1905 and started smoking Scottish salmon in London's East End. H. Forman & Son, run today by Ethan's cousin Lance in a snazzy modern building shaped to look like a salmon fillet, is one of those businesses that turned out to be trendy just by never changing how it did things—it's celebrated by chefs for making some of the finest, least industrialized smoked fish products in the world. Ethan, like so many people in Chicago food, was a onetime trader who decided to rediscover the family artisanal food business. He's working to expand its market in the U.S., which locally includes top restaurants, retailers like Eataly and Whole Foods—and a lot of delis on the North Shore.
And he's in my kitchen (as is food writer David Hammond), explaining the basics of their line as he prepares a tasting for us. "There are two types of things: gravadlax is marinated, and smoked salmon is smoked. But it's all cured. The salt goes on before we decide whether to smoke it in the kiln or put it in the marinade. The cure takes out any water."
He opens packages of four different flavors of gravadlax, better known in the U.S. by its Scandinavian name gravlax: wasabi ginger, Thai lemongrass, "gin and tonic" (made with juniper berries), and the traditional Scandinavian flavor for gravlax, dill. The fish is marinated and pressed (the name is related to the term for being laid in a grave with a stone on it), and it has a slightly rubbery feel which makes it easy to believe the water has been pressed out of it. Even so, the delicacy of the fish and the pure, direct flavor of the ingredients used to marinade the fish is obvious, and a point of pride for Forman.
"Many of our competitors inject brine into the salmon, as part of their cure," he says. "Brine actually adds water to the salmon flesh. So what they're actually doing is selling salmon with 30 or 40 percent water to beef up the weight. We've never used brine. There's no reason to."
Forman starts opening a packaged full salmon fillet, nearly two feet long, as he describes the process for smoking the fish—without, it turns out, actually starting a fire. "We rope hang the salmon and put them on these racks that we roll into the kiln. And we have a wheel, a big industrial wheel, on the outside of a kiln, and we push long oak wood logs down against the wheel. That creates a friction smoke, kind of like if you were burning your tires on the road—that's friction smoke, not fire."
Not building a fire not only makes for a colder smoke, it means they don't have the bitter aspects of wood smoke flavor—which means they don't have to add sugar to balance out the bitterness. "There are only three ingredients in our smoked salmon: the salmon, the salt, and if you consider smoke an ingredient, the friction smoke." Another thing they do is remove the pellicle, the outer layer of microscopic wood particles that settle on the fish. I suggest that's the part us Colonials like—a heapin' helpin' of rustic smoke flavor—but Forman makes a refined Brit case for the delicacy of pellicle-free piscatory pleasure.
But it's not just the toffs who have taken to H. Forman & Son's salmon. Many of their best customers are delis on the North Shore, like Kaufman's in Skokie, Upper Crust in Deerfield, and Once Upon a Bagel. "Upper Crust was our first client in Chicago, before anybody," he says. "They took a chance on us when nobody knew who we were, what we were doing. No sugar in your lox? That's unheard of. There are many other clients now who are celebrating the fact that we're a healthier option. People are very interested in no nitrites, no sugar."
Much of their salmon is sold precut, and all of that is sliced by hand in London—partly because the slicer will find and remove pin bones in the process to ensure as perfect a product as possible. There are two ways to slice a salmon fillet: a D-cut, which is a vertical slice through the half moon shape of the fillet, and a long slice, which runs the length of the fillet. Besides the difference in shape, Forman says they have a distinct taste difference—with a D-cut "you're going to have a different flavor from the top of the fillet to the bottom of the fillet. The top of the fillet is going to be saltier, the bottom has a bit more fat." By comparison, the long slice has the consistent flavor of its layer.
We try this smoked salmon—their lead product—two ways, by itself and on a bagel. There are people who object to sexual metaphors in food writing, in which case they need to just skip to the next paragraph now. It is impossible to avoid impure thoughts as this unabashedly sensual ribbon of supple flesh, buttery and lush and delicate, flicks and rolls about on your tongue. It's an eyes-roll-back-in-your-head culinary experience, as rich and intoxicating and transporting as anything I'll have this year, I think.
But on a bagel, much of that is muted, suppressed. The lack of salt is now obvious; the fish that swept you away on its own seems a wallflower next to bread and cheese. David Hammond asks Forman what he thinks of cream cheese with salmon. "That's an American thing. I love cream cheese on my bagel. My father . . . he thinks I'm a blasphemer. We came here from England, never having seen cream cheese in our lives. They use either creme fraiche or butter."
He has three more items for us to try. The first is the sashimi cut—the filet mignon of the fish, he says, slicing it in thick sashimi cuts. It is something between the previous smoked salmon slices and steak with the butteriness of the former yet a muscular texture that at least hints at the latter. Another is a new product—he says we'll be the fourth and fifth people to try it in north America. It's the same sashimi cut, with its white fat stripes, but it's been marinated in beet juice, picking up a hint of earthy vegetable flavor and a gorgeous fuchsia outer color that fades to the familiar orange about a quarter inch in.
The last item isn't salmon at all. It's eel, a thin fillet of white flesh which has been smoked much more strongly than any of the salmon we've tasted. It's also more substantial than the salmon—"It's almost crunchy," Hammond says. This is a popular item at Eataly, Forman notes, as it's often broken up and stirred into pasta.
All of the salmon comes from the same sources—it's all Scottish salmon. Even in these days of overnight air cargo, they regard Scottish product as the closest, freshest fish for a London supplier to work with. They are the only ones to smoke wild-caught Scottish salmon, which commands twice the price of farm raised, but most of their product comes from salmon farms. From an environmental point of view, salmon farms are a mixed bag—on the positive side, no one's overfishing the salmon to extinction, but salmon pens or open-water farms can have deleterious environmental effects on other sea life in that area, the salmon (who swim mostly near the top) harming what's below them. Forman says the Scottish farms are healthier than those in other parts of the world because they're based in canals, not tanks, which have fresh cold water running through them continuously, which helps prevent diseases like sea lice as well.
"We've been in London for 109 years, which is longer than anyone has been smoking salmon," Forman says as he's packing his goods up and putting them back in his cooler. "We use nothing but the traditional, intended ingredients. And the fourth ingredient on our packaging is 'love.' Why does it say love? Because we care about our product, we care about our consumers, we care about what they put in their bodies." Which is probably not how his great-grandfather the Russian immigrant fishmonger would have put it exactly, but in terms of the fish they sell, it seems to amount to the same thing.