Gossamer thin slices of novy, redolent of smoke, salt, and the sea, layered on a bagel with a schmear -- I salivate as I write the words -- used to be a food group you couldn't easily find in Fairfield Country. We might as well have been in Kansas.
Then, as if by wizardry, a piece of the Upper West Side was transplanted to Stamford's South Side last year. That's when Fairway Market opened its new 80,000 square foot foodie emporium on Canal Street. And the most outstanding feature of this wonderland greets you just past the spectacular array of cheeses: a deli case featuring 10 varieties of smoked salmon and lox from oceans around the world.
The star of the show is Terry Huggins. He presides on a platform 3 feet above his customers, trusty scalpel in hand, dapper in a white lab coat befitting his surgical skills. Born and bred on the Lower East Side, weaned on cured fish at Russ and Daughters, veteran of Dean and Deluca, Balducci’s and Macy's, Terry is equal parts educator, craftsman, and promoter. Think of him as a “sommelier of salmon,” who speaks about fish with passion, knowledge, and romance. He cautions about condiments that "confuse the palate," alludes to the taste profiles of his fishes, and believes he can hand cut a razor-thin slice of Eastern with his eyes shut.
Over the past six months Huggins has spent a lot of time educating Connecticut customers. Make that “re-educating”. First, there was the "Nova Issue". Accustomed to only one choice at the deli counter, many locals lumped all smoked fish together as "Nova." Like Champagne, "Nova" is actually a regional name, usually restricted to fish from Nova Scotia waters.
And then there was the Matter of Lox -- and not the kind that was once manufactured across the street by the Yale Lock Company. We speak of the brined salmon that was a mainstay of immigrants to the Lower East Side. ("Lox" is an Americanization of the German and Yiddish words for "salmon.")
With little refrigeration, those Eastern Europeans relied on preserved salted fish for their protein. In Fairway loxicon, “lox” refers to salmon that is brined only (Belly, Gravlax and Pastrami Salmon). The taste is very salty, which is why lox and cream cheese became a popular pair. Dairy cut the salinity of the pareve lox.
In contrast “Smoked Salmon” is double cured. First it's lightly salted either by hand or wet brine. And then smoked. The taste is smoother, less salty and more layered than lox.
Assistant deli manager Brian Mintzer stocks seven varieties of smoked salmon in his case, along with lox, sable, whitefish, chub, herring, and caviar, etc.
The smoked salmon span a spectrum from mild to strong. Herewith, a field guide for informed fishing….
Norway, "Starter Salmon." Its delicate texture and lightly smoked taste offer an easy –to-eat introduction for newbies. The icy waters of the North Atlantic produce a fattier flesh than further south. As a result, the meat dissipates quickly on the tongue, creating a melt in your mouth sensation. Terry dubs Norwegian his "crowd pleaser." Its broad demo stretches from little kids to the elderly.
Fairway. Like Norwegian, the house brand is firm, delicate, and lightly flavored. The exact curing recipe is a secret, but we learned that four woods combine with juniper berry and pepper to give the fish a distinctive taste that draws raves from connoisseurs. Fairway once smoked their house salmon in the Brooklyn store. But with increasing demand, they now outsource to a small artisanal smokehouse in the area. Because it‘s mild and enjoys a low price point, Fairway is the top seller in the case.
Eastern and Gaspé Nova. It’s the classic: hardwood-smoked and silky in texture, with a bit of a bite and just a hint of fish flavor. From the waters of Nova Scotia's Eastern shore and the Gaspé Peninsula to the North West, these fish are leaner than the Norway and Fairway. My favorite in the entire case is the Eastern because it blends a smooth but firm mouth feel with a subtle kick. It’s not as timid as the milder salmon or as bold as the Scottish.
Wild Western. All of Fairway's salmon is farmed, except for WW, wild caught King Alaskan Salmon. Fighting open ocean waters, the fish become 15-20% leaner than farmed species. They also pack lots of protein from a crustacean diet, making their taste more complex, nutrient rich and stronger than farmed fish. Probably the healthiest of all the smoked salmon, Western is also the most expensive in the case.
New Zealand. A recent addition to the case, the New Zealand has been sold out when I’ve visited. Terry tells me this southern hemisphere salmon is smoked in Manuka wood native to New Zealand, which imparts a sweet, lighter flavor to the meat. Not as smoky as Nova.
Scottish. Heavily smoked with Oakwood from Scotch whiskey barrels, this is the strongest tasting salmon in the case. Warmer waters create a leaner flesh that is more chewy, saltier, and robust than the milder Northern fishes. This is Terry’s favorite because of what he calls "The Punch" and its lingering flavor. It’s a joy ride, but I find Scottish not as smooth as Nova.
Why do people would wait in line for Terry’s hand sliced salmon when they could cross the aisle and grab a pack of smoked salmon in seconds at half the price? Since that salmon is cut by a machine, the slices are thicker and more wavy than the deli’s. Moreover, the vacuum process draws moisture from the fish, resulting in a pasty product. Huggins thinks many buyers use the cheaper pre-cuts for scrambling with eggs or mixing with cream cheese for a smoked salmon spread. (Fairway also sells fresh trimmings at a big discount for the same purpose.)
Most people like to eat their smoked salmon with accessories – a bagel, toast points, cracker, or blini, laced with toppings like cream cheese, capers, red onions and/or tomato. Some of the condiments may counterbalance the salt and smoke. Terry thinks that they also “extend” the salmon, making more of a meal out of the expensive delicacy. Sort of a “Salmon Helper.”
Since the thinly sliced fish gradually loses its oils, Huggins advises that salmon should be refrigerated at home and eaten within 4 days of purchase. Always bring the fish to room temp because oils coagulate in the fridge, trapping pockets of taste and bouquet.
Surprisingly, smoked salmon freezes beautifully in a Ziploc bag. Caution: it should only be unthawed in the refrigerator. Problem: who has leftovers?
In fact, I've just bought Terry’s hand cut, translucent Eastern Nova, and am off to see the Wizards of Fairway’s bagels, capers, and cream cheese.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.