Where and how did your family’s salmon business start?
Jason Bassili: It actually all began when my father took part in a karate competition in France! He ended up winning, went out to celebrate in Paris and stayed there. He was 19 years old and got a job at Le Meurice hotel. He soon discovered that he loved the food industry and through his culinary connections met a guy who made really good smoked salmon, which my father then started exporting to Beirut. But after a while (and a move to Monaco), increased customs duties hampered his business activities in Lebanon. Not one to be defeated, he got on a plane bound for the Shetland Isles of Scotland to work as an intern at an old smokehouse. Under the guidance of his mentor, he learnt everything he could about traditional smoked salmon.
What happened next?
He moved back to Lebanon and started smoking his own fish on the balcony! He didn’t have enough money to buy a proper machine, so he built his own smoker made out of a cupboard with pipes, and he controlled the smoke using cold, wet towels. It obviously didn’t work – but at least he tried. He then re-mortgaged the house, bought an antique machine and set up shop in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. The machine had dials, but no information, so it was through trial and error that my father got it to work. He would spend hours, days and months up there – even through the winter. It was crazy; it was like he put himself into isolation like a monk. Essentially, it took him seven years to get the product right, but he did it.
When did you join the business?
I was always around my father and our businesses at some point or another since the age of four. But I officially joined him in 2004. I was living in Yorkshire, UK, but I moved back to Beirut for university, and in addition to our Salmontini restaurant in Lebanon (opened in 2001), we opened outlets in Saudi Arabia, London and one at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai in 2005. We then opened Salmontini Le Fumoir in 2009.
You supply Spinneys with a variety of smoked salmon; tell us about the range. We’re currently producing organic Norwegian smoked salmon, Norwegian smoked salmon cured with beetroot and orange, Norwegian smoked salmon (in 100g and 200g packs), Norwegian smoked salmon trimmings and Scottish smoked salmon (in 100g and 200g packs), all for the spinneysFOOD brand.
How does your smoking process work?
Our fish arrives whole and fresh by plane. It goes straight to the filleting room where it’s covered in French rock salt and left for around 12 hours, depending on the size of the fish. We use oak chips from Stuttgart (they’re more expensive than sawdust but give you a nicer, lighter smoke) and a German smoking machine. That process can take up to 24 hours. It’s not just about buying fish, putting it in a machine and pressing play. It’s all about finding a balance between the air temperature and humidity, the size of the fish and the smoke. There are around 240 steps involved, and my dad is the only one who really knows all the stages. He is still involved in every smoke cycle – if something goes wrong, he’s the only one who can fix it.
When do you start slicing the fish?
After smoking, the fish is left to rest for three days in a temperature-controlled room before slicing. I can guarantee you we are the only ones who do this. And we do so not because we’re crazy, but because the longer you leave it to dry, the better it is for the flavour to be absorbed into the fish, ultimately giving you a balanced taste in every slice. Unlike other producers, we also remove the smoke-saturated outer layer of the fish, as we don’t need it. It’s only after all this that the fish is moved into the ‘operating room’, and my team remove all the bones and any imperfections by hand. Nothing is missed. Then they hand-slice the flesh into the finest pieces. The fastest guy takes around four and half minutes to slice each fish. It’s not easy, you have to have excellent knife skills. It’s a real art. Oh, and the first six slices are only used for trimmings – this ensures all the main slices are the same size. Everything is packed by hand, too. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s all about quality