Guests checking into the Los Angeles Airport Hilton last week were greeted upon arrival with the distinct and pervasive odor of fish. The occasionally overwhelming scent was not a result of a malfunctioning ventilation system or an overturned delivery truck.
Rather, the distinctive aroma could be traced to the hotel's conference rooms, where Sea Fare '85, one of the nation's largest seafood industry gatherings, was unfolding.
Contributing to the ambiance were dozens of exhibits featuring crabs steaming, cod frying and shrimp braising. Less odoriferous were abundant displays of oysters in the half shell, sushi and various smoked fish.
The event was intended to familiarize seafood brokers and restaurant owners with innovative, unusual or updated seafood supplies. The occasion brought 3,000 to the conference from both domestic and international seafood companies and related industries.
Fish Around the Globe
Those present had an opportunity to closely examine sad-eyed freshly caught fish from around the globe, often on display alongside some slow-moving lobsters. There were also plentiful tastes available of products about to debut, such as imitation shrimp, Hawaiian opakapaka fish, marinated anchovies and dehydrated clam broth.
The greatest challenge, however, involved differentiating among the dozens of smoked salmon currently being marketed. In fact, if Sea Fare '85 is any indication, then American consumers are likely to be offered the prized, orange-tinted fish at virtually every restaurant short of Jack in the Box.
The salmon displayed at many of the more than 200 exhibits hailed from locations throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including Norway, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Alaska and the Northwestern United States. Each sales representative queried boasted with the utmost sincerity of product superiority over the competition.
Smoked salmon, known in many delis as lox, is made in different fashions depending upon custom. However, the basic process involves soaking freshly caught, gutted and boned fish fillets in a curing mixture. The fish are then smoked with various types of woods in different temperatures, according to style.
The fish bluster heard at the Hilton may not decide who has the world's finest salmon, but it certainly pinpoints each product's purported strengths.
Norway was represented by its deputy trade commissioner, Einar O. Haugen, who presided over a six-booth display of Norwegian specialties that emphasized salmon.
"We try to sell Norwegian quality," Haugen said. "Our fish comes from clean water, without pollution." Haugen made the statement in front of a poster showing fishing boats circling one of the Scandinavian country's many offshore oil rigs.
"As soon as the salmon is out of the water, the fish is processed, specially packed in ice that, as a matter of fact, is still hard when the product arrives in New York," he said.
Water quality and cold ocean temperatures make Norwegian smoked salmon superior to the Scottish version, which is often acclaimed as the world's best, he said. Haugen then looked disparagingly over at a French company's salmon samples and said that the firm, Saumonerie De Paris, didn't even use fish from France, but instead imported Norwegian salmon for Franco-style smoking.
'The World's Finest'
One of the many Canadian companies offering salmon was NTC Smokehouse Ltd. of Port Alberni, British Columbia. General Manager Todd Harmon said his products were the world's finest because they were free from dyes or other additives. He whispered that the so-called Atlantic salmon wasn't salmon at all, but a species of trout.
"We're one of the world's salmon capitals, and our sockeye salmon is one of the best. We have the latest smoking technology and are committed to quality," Harmon claimed. Just as he made his proclamation, a restaurant executive strolled by and said Harmon's fish were too dry.
Then there was Tony Printz of Seattle-based Port Catham Packing Co., who made it clear that his smoked salmon was the best.
"I have been told by almost everyone that has stopped at our booth that our king salmon is superior. And that's because it's from (Alaska's) Cooper River, is high in oil, has good color and less fat between the slices of meat," he said.
The cure that the company uses before smoking the fish is a secret, according to Printz, who then said the mixture is brown sugar and salt.
Leslie Perreault, another Washington state salmon smoker, claimed to have the finest salmon at the convention. His company, Scan Fish Inc., was able to choose from large selections of fish in order to get just the right ones for smoking, he said.
Banned in California
The product was not only free of dyes and preservatives, but was smoked with alder wood chips, a substance that gives off so much smoke that it is banned in California, he said. Although admitting that his company did use frozen salmon for smoking, he said it was the best frozen fish available.
Over at the Alaska Seafood International Inc. booth, Mike Benek was saying his smoked salmon was the ultimate and it was certainly better than any being marketed from Washington state.
"The time between when our fish is caught and then processed averages about eight hours. In Seattle, they buy Alaskan fish and then have to air-freight it down there and that takes about two to three days," he said.
The company selects fish from the catch landed at Alaska's Cook's Inlet. The prime location means that some of the world's best salmon is at their disposal, Benek said.
He also mentioned that his company has one of only three genuine salmon slicers currently in North America. "The others use meat slicers," Benek said in disgust. The difference seems to be that salmon slicers delicately cut the fillet into individual serving slices whereas meat cutters are less precise and more inclined to hack the fish.
None of the salmon representatives could be counted on for impartiality, but Ian Sellers of Connoisseur Specialities Ltd. in Berkeley might be considered more objective than the others. His company carries an impressive array of Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, Canadian and American smoked salmons.
An Opinion on Perfection
Pressed for his opinion on perfection, Sellers said: "Scottish is considered to be the best smoked salmon, although many people claim that Irish salmon is superior. However, the Irish salmon is hard to come by.
"Scottish is the best based on flavor, texture (jelly-like), color and fat content," he added. "The Norwegian is good, but it's bland and fattier," he said while protecting a slab of Scottish smoked salmon, samples of which were offered only to the most serious buyer and, occasionally, to a reporter.
Sellers wasn't too enthusiastic about Pacific Ocean salmon, mainly because the version he markets is frozen before smoking. The ideal process uses fresh fish, as is the case with much of the European salmon, he said.
One fellow making the convention rounds who was apparently capable of deciding the merits of the salmon debate was Ian Leitch, executive chef of the Huntington-Sheraton Hotel in Pasadena.
Leitch prefers the Atlantic Ocean salmon because it is higher in fat and more buttery than the Pacific salmon.
"The higher the fat content (of salmon), the more desirable the fish is to me. Some people prefer the meat to be drier and their preference is for Pacific salmon. Then there is the matter of whether it is a hot smoking or cold smoking process. My preference is for Norwegian salmon. It's more consistent. Then again, it's just individual taste."