My previous post was all about the peach walls of Montreuil, but the town next to Paris, known as the “second largest city in Mali” after Bamako, due to its high population of Malians, is also home to over 90 different nationalities. It’s also the location of the best smoked salmon produced in the Île-de-France, or Paris region.
Salmon from the Baltic Sea
Last week, I visited the SAFA, otherwise known as the Société anonyme de fumaison alimentiare. Founded by two Polish brothers in 1926, it happens to be France’s oldest salmon smoking company. It’s even rumored that a particularly sleepy employee may have invented the now-widespread cold smoking technique.
Way back when, the Ruben brothers decided to import all their salmon from the Baltic Sea, which was the best place to find salmon in their homeland. Nowadays, Stéphane Roche, otherwise known as the “Christian Dior of smoked salmon,” still imports wild salmon from the Baltic Sea – it’s one of the company’s specialties. The salmon comes from Bornholm, a Danish island that lies between the coasts of Poland and Sweden.
Fluorescent pink salmon
In 2001, the SAFA was the first company to import organically farmed salmon from Ireland. I had to admit that even though I always look at where my smoked salmon comes from (usually Norway or Ireland), I didn’t know much about salmon production. So when I made the trip out to the SAFA, I asked lots of questions.
I found out that most of the salmon we eat in Europe (90%) is farm-raised, and comes from Norway, Scotland, and Ireland. Here, if we don’t want to break the bank, we’re used to picking out packages of almost fluorescent pink salmon in the grocery store. When I saw the wild salmon, it made me think that what I’d been eating was probably radioactive.
Therein lies the rub
Wild salmon is very pale, almost white, in color – IF it comes from any place on the planet besides Alaska. That’s the only salmon that is naturally bright pink, because Alaskan salmon feeds on a diet of shrimp (those lucky
dogs fish!), and they’re always wild – fish farming is prohibited there. All other wild salmon eat herring, which is basically white (I know this because we always seem to have some in the fridge for a midnight snack).
Okay, fairly simple so far. But what about the smoking process? Therein lies not the rub, as Clive Owen’s character likes to say in the movie Inside Man (apparently misquoting Shakespeare) but rather the brine or the cure. So just how is smoked salmon actually made?
Hot, cold, and sleepy
Like the SAFA until 1935, most industrial producers of smoked salmon use the hot-smoking method. They begin by covering the salmon in a mix of non-iodized salt and sugar – this is called dry curing. Then the salmon is dried and smoked at temperatures as high as 225°F (107°C) for up to 4 hours, over wood chips, so even though the smoked flavor is pretty strong on the outside of the fish, it doesn’t always reach the heart of the salmon filet.
But the SAFA accidentally – and allegedly – invented the cold-smoking method after an overworked (yes, even in France, this is possible!) factory worker fell asleep on the job. It’s too bad for that guy: he only needed to wait a year to take an entire two-week nap, when France’s first paid vacation law was enacted in 1936. In any case, as the story goes, the fire in the bottom of the smoker never actually started, and the sawdust underneath just smoked away gently, slowly penetrating the salmon for hours.
Today, the SAFA uses an artisanal approach for every step of the process: the fish is fileted, then cured for 30 hours with coarse sea salt (never with sugar), and then gently cold-smoked for about 16 hours in a brick kiln (called a corrèze) over moistened sawdust at a maximum temperature of 72°F (22°C). This slow smoking process allows the smoke to reach the heart or middle of the salmon filet.
And slow is the key word: between the time the whole, fresh fish arrives at the SAFA and it leaves as smoked salmon, 3 days have passed. In most industrial salmon factories, the entire process takes only about 4 hours.
But why is there no sugar during the curing process? Sugar is often added to the brine or cure because it helps to balance the salt, and it also holds moisture. That’s fine for brining and smoking at home, where you can control the amount of sugar. But in industrial production, the sugar’s ability to hold water inside the fish means more revenue in the pockets of the producer, since sugar and water are cheaper than actual salmon.
The “girls” at the factory
The SAFA’s method, using only coarse sea salt, absorbs a maximum amount of water and fat from the salmon, so the salmon isn’t greasy or moist. It’s actually rather dry, resulting, strangely enough, in more flavor. (Don’t we say “more fat, more flavor”? Or is that just “no fat, no flavor”?)
The smoked salmon is then sliced by hand, very finely, by the “girls,” as they’re known at the factory (this is France, after all). Industrial smoked fish producers use a machine to slice the fish, but to do this, they have to harden the salmon first. So they freeze the fish slightly, which results in a loss of flavor.
The Tower of Money
By now it must sound to you like the SAFA filled my pockets with money to declare their products as superior – no such luck! My shameless advertising of their fish is absolutely free. I sampled a few of their products, and although I was accustomed to that fatty, moist smoked salmon I’d always bought in supermarkets, the dry, feathery wild salmon was a delicacy. We usually eat smoked salmon with a few drops of lemon, but I also discovered at the SAFA that lemon juice is only used to cut the harshness of poor-quality, oily salmon.
Before the December holiday season, people wait in line outside the SAFA for hours to get their smoked salmon. But how about those Parisians who don’t want to stand out in the cold in a ‘burb? They can also enjoy the SAFA’s products in chic outlets like Lafeyette Gourmet, Fauchon, or even the illustrious restaurant La Tour d’Argent (whose name, meaning “The Silver Tower,” was once infamously translated as “The Tower of Money” by a French translator I knew…he is currently out of work).
At the SAFA, you can also find many other smoked products like halibut, eel, mackerel, trout, tuna, herring, and scallops. I decided to buy some wild salmon from the Baltic Sea, along with a small packet of delicately smoked eel. Délicieux.
The SAFA in Montreuil is open to the public from Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. You’ll find their shop at 130, rue Rosny.
To order products from within France, find the online catalogue here.