We venture inside a salmon smokehouse

Penelope Walsh visits Dubai-based smokehouse Salmontini Le Fumoir to learn how this delicacy is created

…and filleted
…and filleted
The salmon arrives whole
The salmon arrives whole
The salmon is smoked for up to 36 hours
The salmon is smoked for up to 36 hours
It’s then gutted…
It’s then gutted…
It’s smoked using German oak chips
It’s smoked using German oak chips
The fish is salted overnight before being smoked
The fish is salted overnight before being smoked
Hand-slicing ensures greater precision
Hand-slicing ensures greater precision
Salmontini’s fish, ready to hit the shelves at Carrefour
Salmontini’s fish, ready to hit the shelves at Carrefour
Jason Bassili, with his father Joe
Jason Bassili, with his father Joe
Tea-smoked salmon at Karma Kafé
Tea-smoked salmon at Karma Kafé
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After a six-month renovation, fish restaurant Salmontini Le Resto in Mall of the Emirates reopened at the very end of 2012. The venue operates as a showcase for Salmontini Le Fumoir, the company’s Dubai-based salmon smokehouse, and the brand’s smoked salmon is now also available to buy in Carrefour Hypermarkets in Dubai. In light of these developments, we decided to visit the smokehouse – located in Dubai Investment Park – for a guided tour with Jason Bassili, son of owner Joe Bassili, who founded this family business.

Originally from Jbiel in Lebanon, Joe first hit upon the idea for Salmontini when increased customs duty hampered his business activities importing smoked salmon into Lebanon. Deciding that the quality of smoked salmon available on the Lebanese market was poor, Joe started smoking his own. In order to learn the intricacies of the craft, he spent some time in Scotland under the tutelage of a couple that ran their own salmon smokehouse, situated in an ancient castle and using very traditional methods.

Taking this knowledge back to Beirut, Joe began experimenting with his very first fish smoker, a home-made apparatus using an ordinary cupboard, with a pipe to let in the smoke. Jason remembers this makeshift smoker sitting on the balcony of their family home in Beirut, and tells us that his father’s experimentation with the variables of smoking in this ‘primitive’ fashion is what enabled him to become an expert. ‘Our smoking machines have been customised to my father’s requirements because he understands the process so well,’ Jason adds.

From this balcony-based research, Joe opened the Beirut smokehouse in 1991, with Salmontini restaurant in Beirut opening in 2001 as a means of showcasing the company’s product. The Dubai arm of the company launched in 2005 with Salmontini restaurant at Mall of the Emirates, followed by a Dubai smokehouse in 2011.

According to the Bassilis, Salmontini is very much a family business, with Joe and his son Jason based in Dubai to oversee operations here, and the Beirut branch managed by Joe’s brother. To some extent, the familial sense of loyalty extends to some Salmontini employees too. One employee we met, Claudia Nader, from Jounieh in Lebanon, has been working with Joe Bassili for more than 17 years, with Jason dubbing her a ‘mother figure’ within the company.

At the smokehouse, Jason gives us a guided tour of the salmon-smoking process. As we step inside the offices, the first thing to hit us, unsurprisingly, is the smoky smell pervading the air. The fish, Jason explains, moves in a linear process throughout the factory, always moving forward to the next production stage. The salmon, sourced from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, arrives at the factory whole on a bed of ice to keep
it fresh. Salmontini uses different suppliers, and when we visit the boxes of fish that have been delivered are labelled with a royal warrant, the seal given to companies that have supplied royal households in the UK.
Jason explains that cooling the fish with ice doesn’t affect the quality in the way that freezing would. He also points out that while importing salmon sides (already gutted and filleted) would be cheaper by weight, importing the fish whole allows them to check the quality and freshness.

The fish is then gutted and filleted in house, removing the backbone and fins, but keeping the belly fat around the sides of fish, which helps to retain moisture and flavour during smoking. Watching the Salmontini workers swiftly remove the bones of the fish by hand, Jason explains that the process of removing pin bones by machine bruises the surface of the flesh, destroying the texture. We learn that some of the workers occasionally take the salmon spines and fish heads home to make into curries.

Once they’re filleted, the salmon sides are then salted and left overnight, for about 12 to 18 hours. The salt is then washed off with water, leaving the fish ready for smoking.

The smoking process requires a source of fuel to create the smoke. Salmontini uses untreated oak wood chips from Stuttgart in Germany, which creates incredibly white, viscous smoke when heated – we found the wood had a pleasant, slightly herbal aroma. The fish is smoked for 24 to 36 hours depending on its individual weight, water and fat content. This length of time is unusual, Jason explains, telling us that many companies opt for a shorter period, which allows a greater quantity of salmon to be smoked in the allotted time. However, this means the fish isn’t smoked as thoroughly, with the smoke unable to pervade all the layers of flesh.

After smoking, the fish is allowed to rest for 24 hours before slicing. At this stage, the thick, smoke-saturated outer layer of flesh is removed. While these aren’t used for retail, the offcuts from the crust are delicious, with an intensely smoky flavour and chewier texture. Some manufacturers retain this crust to give an extra hint of smokiness, but Jason tells us Salmontini can afford to remove this because the smoky flavour has pervaded the entire fish.

Again, the slicing is done by hand. ‘We have a machine slicer that was given to us for free, but we don’t use it because the mechanism of machine slicing destroys the flesh,’ Jason says. He explains that the friction of the blades generates heat which effectively cooks the flesh. Hand slicing also allows workers to identify and remove pin bones that have been left in the flesh, and to remove the brown meat from the salmon – this is muscle that mars the flavour of the pink flesh. The end product of this loving process is paper-thin slices with a beautiful marbling of fat and, thankfully, a wonderfully sweet, smoky flavour.
Salmontini smoked salmon is available at Carrefour, various locations including Mall of the Emirates (800 73232), priced at Dhs28.50 for 100g, or Dhs49.90 for 200g. Salmontini Le Resto, Mall of the Emirates, Barsha (04 341 0222).

Three more to try: smoked fish dishes

Blue Flame: Start your dinner with salmon smoked in-house at Blue Flame. The restaurant brines the Scottish salmon overnight, before cold smoking it for two hours using apple wood chips. The starter is then served with pickle, onion, apple, celeriac salad and caper vinaigrette.
Dhs65. Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, Garhoud (04 230 8580).

Karma Kafé:
It’s not just the Scots and the eastern Europeans that are a dab hand at smoking fish. This technique also appears in Chinese cooking, but the crucial difference is that tea – rather than wood – is used to create the smoke. At Karma Kafé, try a fillet of salmon smoked using lapsang souchong tea.
Dhs135. Souk Al Bahar, Downtown Dubai (04 423 0909).

Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire: New to the menu for this season and available until the end of March, try the bar sauvage en croûte de sel. Designed for two to share, this dish of whole sea bass is smoked using oak wood chips for 20 minutes. The fish is then baked in a salt crust, perfumed with Jodhpur spices and severed with Vietnamese green mango and avocado.
Dhs420 (for two). InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1111).

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