My brother and I share many things. A love of music. An obsession with trivia. Childhood memories. But one of our shared interests that most often connects us these days is our love of nostalgia and all things retro. Nothing pleases us more than finding the most obscure movie reference T-shirts online (how about an Overlook Hotel staff T-shirt? Or maybe a shirt advertising Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago?? answers on apostcard…); or a list the top 80s power balads; or photographs of our hometown in the 1890s; or whatever – as long as it brings back happy memories.
One of our earliest shared childhood memories was going to La Fontaine, a restaurant that was very popular in Port Elizabeth in the 1970s and 1980s – the kind of place where the italian owner wore a suit and greeted you by name at the door; where all the ladies were given a fresh flower corsage to wear; and a real live pianist played tinkly melodies from one corner of the room. The menu would today be considered an ironica and witty 70s retro revival – seafood cocktail, melba toast, grapefruit cocktail, smoked salmon, chateaubriand, sole bonne femme, crepes suzette…but at the time it seemed to us to be the height of sophistication. And I am sure it is at la Fontaine that we both developed our enduring fondness for these classic 1970's dishes. The food of nostalgia!
It was definitely here that we both developed our love for smoked salmon, a dish which my father enthusuastically ordered his wholfe life despite cautioning us against EVER eating raw fish such as sushi (!). It was so unlike any normal fish that we usually had at home, both in texture and colour (fresh salmon in Port Elizabeth in the 1980s was not a common sight, so pink fish was a total novelty to us), that we both elevated it to the highest realms of desirability – a super special treat to be ordered in restaurants and served at home only for Christmas and birthdays. Years went by, La Fontaine closed, and I moved to London: a city of beautiful architecture, fabulous art collections, centuries of history, a feast of theatre… and cheap smoked salmon.
And I don't mean that in a bad way! I was utterly thrilled to find that even on a modest budget, smoked (and fresh) salmon was affordable here, and we proceeded to eat rather a lot of it. We still do. But the more you eat, the more you start to notice the difference betweemn the cheap stuff and te good stuff. The cheap stuff is lacking in texture; it's a scary kind of dyed neon pink; and it's almost always too salty. It's fine for a pasta sauce or in a salmon chowder, but in a dish where you really want to show off the flavour of the salmon, it's always a good idea to pay a premium and get the good stuff. So you can imagine my joy when I first tasted a piece of H Forman & Son London Cure Smoked Salmon. Forman & Field (suppliers of all manner of artisinal British foods) had kindly offered to send me a free sample – did I think I would be able to use it in a recipe? You bet I could!
Harry Forman developed the London cure in the early 1900s specifically because he thought that smoked salmon was often smoked and salted to the point that you tasted only the smoke, not the fish. His cure was mild and designed to highlight the quality of the fish – and it certainly does. The 200g pack of hand-sliced salmon that I received was a thing of great beauty – firm, fatty and almost translucent slices of smoked salmon piled on top of one another waiting to be transformed into a dish. But before I made anything with it, I had to try a piece (purely for selfless research purposes, you understand!). The first thing you notice is the texture – not flimsy and insubstantial like some cheap versions, but meaty and oh-so-decadently fatty. There is a lovely smoke flavour but definitely nothing overpowering and the the primary flavour is the sweet flesh of the fish itself. The salt is also present but subtle. It is quite possibly the best smoked salmon I have tasted, and I was thrilled to see that the smokehouse is near to where I live! Visits are possible and as if that weren't exciting enough, there is an on-site restaurant serving many of their products. I can hardly wait to visit!
So my only dilemma was what to make with this delectable fishy bounty. After much thought, I decided on these stacks – firstly because I wanted to mess with the salmon as little as possible; secondly, because it seemed an appropriately summery dish for the impossibly good weather London is having; and thirdly because serving food in stacks is ever so last-century retro. And I'm a sucker for retro
SMOKED SALMON AND AVOCADO STACKS (makes 4)
You will need 4 food stacking rings – or alternatively make your own by cutting lengths of a clean plastic pipe about 6 cm in diameter, or use washed food tins with both the top and bottom cut off.
4 rounds of bread (cut to the diameter of your stacking rings)
a little butter
200g smoked salmon (I used H Forman & Son London cure)
3 very ripe tomatoes, diced
2 ripe avocado pears
1 tsp lemon juice
about 4 Tbsp finely chopped wild rocket
1 Tbsp very finely chopped sweet onion
2 Tbsp sour cream
salt and pepper
Use your stacking rings to cut out 4 rounds of bread. lightly butter them on both sides and toast under a medium grill, turning once.
In a bowl, mix the diced tomato, onion and half the wild rocket. In another bowl, roughly mash the avocado (so that visibly chunks remain) together with the lemon juice, sour cream, remaining wild rocket, and salt and pepper to taste.
To assemble, place the stacking rings on plates. Place a toast round in the bottom of each. Tear or cut the smoked salmon into rough circles and lay about 4 of these onto each toast round. Spoon 1/4 of the tomato mix over the smoked salmon in each ring, trying to avoid as much of the juice as possible (this would make your toast soggy). Spoon 1/4 of the avocado mix into each ring on top of the tomato and press down lightly, making a fairly flat top.
Very carefully remove the rings by pulling gently upwards. Serve immediately with a fresh green salad and toasted seed bread. I paired mine with the rather delicious apple and elderflower juice from The Orchard Pig but if you are feeling indulgent you could pair it with a heavenly Stellenrust barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc.
Don't forget that this month I am hosting the Monthly Mingle, my darling sister Meeta's monthly event. The theme is Topless Tarts and you have until 30 April to get your entries to me! Full details are available on my announcement post.