Topsham, England — Here is our village and throughout the British Isles hardy fishermen are tugging on rubber thigh boots and sewing and patching their delicate weighted seine nets. Small wooden boats have been repaired and repainted. And among certain circles there is excitement in the air, for the salmon fishing season is beginning once more.
Indeed, there is a sense of mystery and excitement about this firm pink-fleshed king of fish, which is able to live in both fresh- and saltwater and has the miraculous instinct to migrate thousands of miles to feed off the coast of Greenland, yet still return every year to its freshwater home to spawn.
What a shame, we think, that after such an arduous journey fishermen lay in wait to net these beautiful creatures when they are finally so close to home. We should remember, however, that countries where salmon have traditionally been caught have always strictly controlled the number of fish taken to ensure that sufficient numbers reach the upstream breeding grounds.
Salmon used to be plentiful both in western Europe and in North America, so plentiful, in fact, that it was thought a rather common and dreary fish by those who had to eat it daily! Here in our village a Topsham fishery kept more than 100 men employed at the turn of the century.
Now the number of full-time salmon boats working the Exe estuary is a paltry half-dozen or so. An outbreak in 1969 of a serious disease reduced the number of fish, but the greatest threat, fishermen say, is that foreign trawlers off the coast of Greenland are netting the salmon before they have a chance to return to their home waters to spawn.
Here on the Exe River fishing methods remain basic, virtually unchanged for a thousand years.The men work twice a day or night, whenever the tide is on the ebb. Then in small rowboats equipped only with a seine net, groups of two or three men make their way year after year to bends in the river with strange names centuries old: Black Ore, Ting Tong, In-Through-the-Mud, Out-Through-the-Drain, the Spit, the Stile, and many more.
I went out not long ago with my friend Denzil Pym, a local fisherman whose family has been working the Exe for generations. He himself has been fishing for nearly 30 years, and he remembers when salmon were so plentiful that you could see them leaping up river in groups of three or four, their silver backs shining in the sun.
The first stop we made was on a stretch of the river called "the Mud." The River Exe, like many rivers in England, is tidal, so that at high tide it resembles a wide shallow bay. But at low tide, as the water level drops, a series of mud flats are revealed with only a deep, fast-running channel in the middle. The fishermen work only as the tide is dropping.
The method is for one man to get out of the boat, stand in the mud, and hold a shore line attached to the seinem net. The other fisherman then "shoots" the channel of the river, that is, rows hard across this deep narrow stream while the net feeds out behind the boat to create a sweeping, circular loop of net in the river. Cork floats keep the top of the net along the surface while lead weights allow the bottom to expand below water level. The Salmon, if there are any, are trapped in this loop. The boat is then brought back to the muddy shore , and then the men slowly tighten and gather in the seine.m
Though we spent several muscle-aching hours that day hauling in the heavy nets, we did not catch a single fish. Even in a good week, a boat today might net only 10 salmon. Pym once went six weeks without a catch. It is no wonder, then, that salmon is so expensive these days.
Smoked salmon is a great delicacy which the British as well as the Scandinavians and Canadians produce excellently. Once smoked, this fish has a firm, orange-colored flesh which can be carved into paper thin, transparent slices. Here it is often served at the start of a meal, with thinly sliced and buttered brown bread, lemon wedges, and freshly milled black pepper.
Fresh salmon is delicious simply poached in a court-bouillon, or good stock, and served with either homemade mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce. Cross-cut salmon steaks can be broiled, fried, or cooked over a charcoal barbeque and are good accompanied with scrubbed and boiled "new" potatoes and a cucumber salad.
Since fresh salmon is so expensive and sometimes difficult to find, canned salmon is a delicious, if less elegant, alternative.
Potted meats and fish used to be popular in England before the days of refrigeration, and potted salmon was often treated this way during the season, when there was a glut of the stuff. Today, potted salmon, which is simply a pounded salmon paste (or pate), makes sense if you want to make a little bit of this expensive fish go a long way. This recipe uses canned salmon, though it is even better if you use a little bit of leftover fresh fish. Potted Salmon 5 1/2 ounce can of salmon Dash of salt and black pepper 1/2 teaspoon mace or nutmeg 4 tablespoons melted butter 2 Teaspoons lemon juice 2 tablespoons cream
Pound the salmon with salt, pepper, and mace until a smooth paste consistency. Mix in 2 tablespoons of the melted butter, then add lemon juice and cream. Pack the paste into a basin, or into individual ramekins, and seal the surface with the rest of the melted butter.
Chill well and serve with hot toast and lemon wedges.
This rich, elegant molded salad is perfect for an outdoor lunch, or as the centerpiece of a buffet. Salmon Mousse 1 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin 1/i cup hot water 1/2 cup fish, chicken, or vegetable stock 2 tablespoons lemon juice 6 Tablespoons mayonnaise 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 1/2 cup whipping cream 1 pound canned salmon
Sall and pepper to taste
Melt the gelatin in hot water. Cool and add the stock, then the mayonnaise, lemon, and Worcestershire sauce. Mix well. Add the flaked salmon, then whip the whipping cream and fold it into the mixture. Season.
Prepare a wetted mold, preferably in the shape of a fish. Add the mixture to the mold and chill until firm.
Turn onto a platter garnished with lettuce and tomato and serve with mayonnaise. Salmon Steaks in Butter Sauce 1/2 medium-sized onion, chopped 5 tablespoons butter 4 to 6 small salmon steaks Salt and pepper Juice of 1/2 lemon A handful of chopped fresh parsley More butter and lemon juice, if necessary
Melt half the butter in a small frying pan, and try the onion gently until soft. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lay the salmon steaks in a buttered ovenproof dish. Season with salt and pepper, then spoon the onion and butter mixture and the lemon juice over the top of the fish. Dot with the rest of the remaining butter and cover the dish with foil. Bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.
After the fish is cooked, transfer to a serving plate. Put the cooking juices and butter mixture into a small saucepan with the chopped fresh parsley. Whisk over a low heat into a creamy sauce, adding more butter or lemon juice if necessary.
Pour this sauce over the hot fish and serve at once.