If chicken is the ubiquitous protein from the land, then salmon is its marine sibling. The pink-hued fish — with its briny richness and versatility — has long been a favourite of home cooks and chefs alike: a fish dependable in the eating, readily sourced and likely to be a reliable order on a restaurant menu. James Hansen reports on the rise of the trout as an alternative.
So long salmon
Now the tide is turning. Atlantic and Scottish wild salmon are increasingly scarce — and have been so for years — with parasites, declining quality and increasing logistical opacity putting farmed salmon in the shade. Salmon is no longer the menu mainstay it once was, customers are increasingly clued up on the realities of fish farming and sustainability, and restaurants and home cooks alike are turning to a local, freshwater alternative: trout.
Hugo Hardman of Hampshire’s Chalk Stream Trout tells me that when he started looking at the possibility of farming the freshwater fish, “the trout industry was on its knees, as a result of the huge rise and growth in salmon in the 80s and 90s.” Now, Chalk Stream supplies the likes of lauded Hampshire restaurant and hotel Chewton Glen, Michelin-starred The Ritz in London, and celebrity magnet Chiltern Firehouse.
Water filtered through chalk hills
Hardman explains that the chalk stream — a fast-flowing, fresh water current that runs through chalk hills — is a perfect environment for trout; with only 200 in the world, and 160 of those in England, it’s also a precious natural resource. The filtering effect of the chalk and its alkalinity produces additional oxygen in the water, while the fast currents — “it’s like a constant gym” — produce large, lean, delicious fish, perfect for chefs; a world away from the “small thing that sits on your plate, a few almonds winking at you.” Trout — particularly chalk stream trout — has more than earned its seat at the table, with 2.5kg – 3kg fish commonplace. As with turbot, bigger is better.
Hardman is also keen to extol the virtues of discussing provenance and sourcing in a restaurant context outside of traditionally revered producing regions. Cornwall is currently having a real moment on the U.K. dining scene, particularly in London, with the work of suppliers and “fixers” like Matt Chatfield getting the likes of day-boat turbot, dry-aged Cornish beef and specially reared Tamworth pigs into the city’s hottest, most brilliant restaurants. Hampshire, by contrast, does not see as much acclaim, despite the rarity of the trout, and the rarity of its quality, easily standing up to Kernow Sashimi’s phenomenal day-boat fish. This is in part due to the product: trout has, up until very recently, always been forced to swim in salmon’s shadow.
The Ottolenghi effect
Hardman says that things really changed when Yotam Ottolenghi — responsible for reinvigorating British dinner parties and sales of pomegranates alike — wrote about the fish, their fish, in The Guardian. Ottolenghi wrote that trout was a challenging menu item, compared to salmon, but the combination of a renewed focus on provenance, salmon’s ubiquity, and the sheer quality of the trout as a product, is turning the tide. Trout — especially from water as clear as that at Chalk Stream — is a less assertive, more sophisticated flavour than salmon, with a nuance that its pink cousin lacks: where salmon is a standard pork chop, trout is iberico pork.
A different kind of flavour
Chalk Stream once cured all of its trout on-site, but such is demand that it has handed over production to esteemed smokery Severn & Wye. Cured trout — when carefully prepared — is more articulate in flavour than a salmon equivalent, neither bulled by the cure nor bullying the cure itself. Its exceptional clarity also lends itself to being cooked as little as possible — thinly sliced, perhaps marinated for a ceviche or similar raw preparation. Baked or roasted is the most familiar way of cooking, but these higher quality fish don’t need to be shrouded in aromatics and heavy flavours — keep things simple and light, and embrace the quality of trout, that all starts in Hampshire’s gin-clear streams.