Whilst others fret about whether to use an air fryer to cook their Turkey this Christmas, the food issue that has most exercised me is what will replace the Smoked Salmon.
A whole (unsliced) side of smoked salmon has been a mainstay of our Christmas breakfast, and subsequent canapés, for years. Of course, it had become increasingly difficult to buy wild Atlantic Salmon, but I have been fortunate in finding sources in Ireland or from friends who fish. Both avenues are now closed, there is one small smokery in Ireland that obtains wild salmon from a very select few licensed fishermen, but the quantity is so small that I’m not sure what you have to do to get on the list of buyers! Friends who fish now practice catch and release, and they are catching precious few anyway.
For a number of years I switched to smoked Sea Trout (Sewin), and I actually preferred it to Salmon, being slightly less oily. Alas, the problems that have beset Wild Atlantic Salmon have spread to their relation, and I have not been able to buy wild sea trout for the last couple of years either. It is now being farmed, with all the associated issues that affect the farming of salmon.
If you are not clear on what these issues are, see my article 50 years of British Fish and the wildfish.org website for more background. What I will mention here is two developments that have happened this month:
- Selfridges were forced to withdraw their claim that the farmed salmon they sell is sustainable. (Telegraph article)
- At COP 28 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved the status of Atlantic Salmon from to “Near Threatened” with new evidence showing the global population decreased by 23% between 2006 and 2020. (Read more)
So there really is no way that I could happily consume farmed salmon now, and although last year I replaced it with trout from heavily monitored chalk streams, I found it somewhat underwhelming for such an important occasion. So where now?
The gap left is not easy to fill. Smoked salmon, despite having become such a degraded product, until recently still held a sufficient air of luxury that made it an appropriate partner for Champagne to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It also met the requirement to be ready to eat in a trice – vital when there is so much cooking to come. However, it has ceased to meet other key requirements e.g. “good, clean and fair” (to quote Slow Food’s mantra) which requires thorough knowledge of the provenance.
Not only is there Christmas morning to cater for, but the entire holiday is an opportunity for a relaxed breakfast, or brunch, that our usual hectic lives allow no time for. If you have guests staying, you may also want to cater for variations in tastes as well as rising times.
I will usually bake my own bread products to put in the freezer, but if you live near a proper baker, you can happily shortcut here. This year, I will be baking traditional English breakfast muffins, not to be confused with the American cakes that seem to be what everyone thinks of as a muffin today. You can make them plain and white as the perfect base for a slice of ham and a poached egg, or spiced and fruited to accompany a dried fruit compôte. I think I will choose the former for Christmas Day and the latter for the days that follow.
If you want to stick with fish for breakfast, there is plenty of inspiration from the era of grand house breakfasts of the Edwardian age. Quality, undyed, smoked haddock would make a fine choice and features in dishes such as Kedgeree, Omelette Arnold Bennett or just simply topped with a poached egg.
Eggs are an excellent way to prepare your body for the rest of the day when more food and alcohol than normal might be on offer. Those who do not normally have access to freshly laid eggs are always impressed by how a poached fresh egg keeps its shape!
Another fish option that we seldom have time to cook for breakfast is Kippers – Craster Kippers would be my preference, but others may prefer a different cure. Cook them in the oven to minimize the smell.
Gentleman’s Relish is a very respectable shortcut to including fish at Christmas. It is made predominantly from anchovies and could be spread on a toasted English Muffin before being topped with scrambled eggs to make an easy version of Scotch Woodcock. I will also make use of Gentleman’s Relish over the Christmas season for an easy canapé – just spread it on a sheet of good puff pastry (the Dorset pastry company) roll up and cut into strips which you then twist before baking.
So, I hope you can see that whilst it is a tragedy to see the demise of wild Atlantic Salmon, there are better options than farmed. Happy Christmas!
English Breakfast Muffins
These are made with a stiffer batter than crumpets and are baked without rings. They do not have holes. They are made almost like buns but then baked on a griddle rather than in the oven – which is a fascinating process that requires a leap of faith the first time you do it. There are strong opinions about how they should be buttered, definitely not split and toasted. According to Marian McNeill the correct way to serve them is to open them slightly at their joint all the way round (some say to snip with scissors), toast them back and front, then tear them open and butter the insides liberally.
450g/1lb strong plain flour
2 tsps salt
175ml/6 fl oz water
175ml/6 fl oz milk
2 tbsp olive oil
15g/½oz fresh yeast or 2 tsps of traditional dried/1 tsp of easy-blend
1 tsp sugar
Rice flour for dusting
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl, then cover and place in a very low oven to warm. Meanwhile mix together the milk and water (or use all semi-skimmed milk) and warm until just tepid. Cream the yeast and sugar with a little of the warm milk (or if using easy blend yeast you can add it directly to the dry ingredients).
Make a well in the middle of the warmed flour and pour in the yeast liquid and olive oil. Mix with a wooden spoon and then turn out onto an oiled surface to knead. The dough should be very soft and slack, but not sticky. When smooth, put the dough back into the bowl, cover and leave until doubled in size (an hour or so).
Divide the dough into eight and shape each piece into a ball then flatten slightly with the heel of your palm. Dust all over with rice flour. Put them onto a well-floured tray and cover with a cloth for 40 minutes or so until they have risen again.
Heat a skillet until hot but not red hot as you would for meat, then transfer the muffins very gently so that you do not knock the air out. Cook gently for about 8 minutes a side. They will look floury, pale golden-brown but white-waisted and should be anything up to 2″ (5cm) thick. Serve as described above.
Savoy Grill Omelette Arnold Bennett
Omelette Arnold Bennett was created by The Savoy chef in the 1920s during the lengthy stay there by the eponymous author. The original recipe included Hollandaise Sauce, which is frankly more than I can be bothered with on Christmas morning. When Gordon Ramsey took over the Savoy Grill he substituted Béchamel Sauce for the Hollandaise, making the dish simpler to cook and, in my view, every bit as tasty.
Makes 1 hearty portion which looks wonderful served in the pan (a 20cm/8″ skillet)
For poaching the haddock
300g un-dyed smoked haddock
400 ml milk
3 cloves of garlic
Sprig of Thyme
For the sauce
200ml of milk from poaching haddock
20 g butter
20g plain flour
½ teasp. Dijon mustard
Salt, pepper and nutmeg
For the Omelette
3 large eggs
Cheddar and Gruyère cheeses, grated
Chopped chives and parsley
In a pan large enough to hold the haddock, bring the milk to simmering point along with the crushed garlic cloves and thyme. Add the fish and cook until the haddock starts to flake (about 3-5 minutes). Remove the fish and flake it into big pieces.
Melt the butter in another pan, add the flour and then gradually stir in 200 ml of the milk to make a smooth sauce. Flavour with Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Cool slightly before gently folding in the fish taking care not to break it up too much.
Heat the skillet or omelette pan and at the same time heat your grill up to “high”. Whilst this is heating break the eggs into a bowl, combine the yolks with the whites using a fork, and season with salt and pepper.
Add a good knob of butter to the pan and as soon as it is frothing, but before it begins to brown, throw in the eggs, shake the pan and allow the mixture to cook until just set. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle over a mixture of grated Cheddar and Gruyère cheeses. Pour the haddock sauce evenly over the top. Sprinkle with a little more cheese and place under the hot grill until lightly golden and bubbling.
Finish with chopped chives and parsley and serve in the pan.