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Mon 1 Jan 2007 02:55 PM

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King of the sea

While stocks of wild salmon are diminishing, farmed salmon is widely used worldwide due to its versatility and customer appeal. Caterer looks at market prices and the latest trends

Although fresh salmon is not native to the region, sourcing it is not a problem. A plethora of suppliers are able to import Scottish and Norwegian salmon into the market, and frozen Chilean is also widely available.

The popularity of salmon has had a negative affect, with farmed salmon accounting for more than 99% of all Atlantic salmon sold in the market, due to a depletion of wild salmon stocks. But despite this, salmon still remains a top seller in the region.

"Even though it is not a local fish, it is easily one of the top three sellers in the market. It has always been a firm favourite and I believe it will remain that way, it just doesn't seem to lose its appeal," comments John Redding, executive chef and national accounts manager at distribution giant, Horeca.

Since February 2006, Horeca Trade has been distributing smoked salmon from Lebanese-based Royal Gourmet. Imported to Lebanon, the Scottish salmon is filleted, salted and smoked over Scotch oak in the Levant.

"If you take the raw product, it has great parentage, as it is Scottish. Because of this, it is a high-end product that would not suit everybody. It is about filling that mid-market gap," he adds.

With market prices ranging from AED40 (US $11)-AED400 ($110) per kilo of smoked salmon, so too does the quality. Redding says on average, the baseline price for smoked salmon from Royal Gourmet varies from AED100 ($27)-AED110 ($30) per kilo, and alters according to the cut.

Carrying two specific cuts for The Grosvenor House West Marina Beach and the Burj Al Arab, it also offers the D-cut, long slice and the coeur de fillet. Depending on the dishes, Redding says the long slice is ideal for platters, whereas the D-cut is perfect for starters and bagels.

Wet Fish Trading also offers salmon, both fresh and smoked. The company is able to sell the salmon whole if required, but the UAE market generally demands filleted or portioned slices, as this saves time and man power in the kitchens.

"We use Severn and Wye Smokery in Gloucestershire, UK, for our smoked salmon products. They also offer flavoured salmon, including beetroot and tomato and basil flavour," comments Mark Allan, managing director, Wet Fish Trading.

As the market changes, so too does the price. Allan says that over the past year, prices have rocketed, with the month of April seeing salmon in Dubai cost around $11 per kilo. More recently, the market has started to level out, with prices now ranging from $7-$9 per kilo.

"You know how much wheat is in a field, or the number of cattle on a farm, but you do not know what is in the sea, so prices and availability will always be hard to predict," says Allan.

Over the past decade, the difference in quality between Scottish and Norwegian salmon has also levelled out, and where the price of Norwegian salmon would have cost 25% less than Scottish salmon 10 years ago, the cost of both is now comparable.

"The Norwegians have got their act together. They bought out Scottish farms to see how they operated in order to improve their own product, and in my opinion, there is not a huge difference between the two. But you will always have some chefs wanting to use Scottish salmon, whereas others want to use Norwegian," says Allan.

In the Dubai market, one company that has embraced salmon is La Maison du Saumon. The Lebanese-based company, which already has a number of restaurants in Beirut, opened Salmontini at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates in July.

Offering a range of smoked salmon and salmon dishes, all of the Scottish salmon is smoked in Lebanon.

"I learnt how to smoke the salmon from some people in Scotland. The smokehouse is only 300m², but it serves what we need," says Joe Bassili, founder, La Maison du Saumon.

Smoking anywhere between 3000kg-5000kg of salmon per week, Bassili still prepares the salmon in the traditional way of warming it before leaving it overnight to dry, and then placing it in the kiln and smoking it. During the smoking process, a crust forms on top of the salmon, which Bassili says helps maintain its flavour.

When it comes to serving the salmon, Salmontini offers simple dishes with minimal disruption to the fish. This involves offering it with a green salad, or serving it as salmon tartar or as heart of salmon, which are the restaurant's two best sellers.

"We serve it simply. If it is an excellent cut of salmon, why would you want to change it? It is about knowing what you are good at and sticking to it," advises Bassili.

Moving with the market is also very important, and Salmontini now offers sushi and sashimi. However, raw salmon flesh can contain Anisakis nematodes, which are marine parasites that cause Anisakiasis, a disease of the intestines. Because of this, before refrigeration was available the Japanese did not consume raw salmon. Only recently has raw salmon and salmon roe been used in Japanese cooking, but already this style of cuisine has been widely embraced, leading to a greater demand for the product.

Diversity and expanding the use of salmon means suppliers are constantly importing the product into the market, with Horeca Trade selling 1.8 tonnes of Royal Gourmet's smoked salmon in November last year. Indeed, the UK Fisheries department recorded exports of fresh and chilled salmon from the UK reaching 37,856 tonnes for 2005, with 1771 tonnes of frozen salmon exported.

And now the majority of Atlantic salmon is farmed, levels can be monitored and maintained; unlike wild salmon where overfishing has lead to stock depletion. To counteract this, drift net fishing has now been banned on the high seas - except off Northumberland on the east cost of England. Wild salmon in the north Pacific on the other hand - including British Columbia and Alaska - is still in abundance, but is not usually found in the Middle East region due to the distance of delivering the fish fresh, and also air freight costs.

Regardless of price though, salmon has, and is likely to remain, a firm favourite.

"As a chef you really want to express yourself and take cuisine to the next level, and that is what is so great about salmon," comments Redding.

"It can be used in so many ways and in so many different styles of cuisine, so the options are endless," he adds.

The low down on wild salmon

• Wild salmon stocks in European seas have decreased rapidly, leading to a rise in price. Recent market prices are AED435 ($119) per kilo, as the wild salmon season finishes in September. Towards the end of the season, suppliers in the UK purchase wild salmon, and then cure and freeze it before defrosting, smoking and slicing it, before selling it in the market.

• Although a number of chefs are still keen to use it, suppliers and conservation activists believe wild salmon should be left alone in order to maintain and eventually increase stock levels.

• The decline of wild salmon can be attributed to a number of factors, including overfishing, and a rise in sea temperatures, which can delay spawning. Other reasons include diseases like sea lice, the loss of suitable freshwater habitat, and the reduction of freshwater base flow in rivers due to man-made diversions and irrigation schemes.

Salmon facts

• Salmon contains high levels of protein and Omega-3.

• Contamination of methyl mercury in salmon is low compared to other fish.

• They are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean and then return to fresh water to reproduce.

• All species of Pacific salmon die within a few days or weeks of spawning, which is known as semelparity.

• When a female salmon lays her roe, she creates a hole known as a redd, which can contain more than 5000 eggs. In total, a female salmon can create as many as seven redds.

• Salmon flesh is generally orange or red in colour, and this is because of carotenoid pigments in the flesh.

"You do not know what is in the sea, so prices and availability will always be hard to predict" Mark Allan, managing director, Wet Fish Trading
"As a chef you like to express yourself and take cuisine to the next level, and that is what is great about salmon" John Redding, executive chef and national accounts manager, Horeca

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