One of the only disadvantages, I reckon, of living on the southern tip of Africa is that salmon don't live here too. We can buy salmon flown in from northern waters, but it's eye-poppingly expensive and often not that good, unless it's very wild or very fresh.
I'd rather spend my pennies on the high-quality trout that's now quite extensively (and substainably) farmed in South Africa.
I've mentioned Franschhoek company Three Streams's superlative trout before on this blog (here, here and here) and I've used it instead of salmon in this very old recipe. This will, of course, work perfectly well with ordinary salmon.
In this recipe, I've used a whole fillet of still-raw, delicately smoked trout (available, in South Africa, at Woolworths). Because it's already lightly smoked, it takes only five minutes to poach, but if you're using ordinary salmon, you may need to leave it in its cooking liquor a little longer.
This recipe (see original, left) dates from 1795, but is doubtless a lot older, as English cookery has a long tradition of potting meats and fish.
The recipe comes from a book called The New Experienced English Housekeeper by Mrs Sarah Martin, which is available online at Google Books. In her admirably clear and simple instructions, Mrs Martin calls for an ingredient called 'chyan'. This had me scratching my head for many hours, and even a concerted search of Google didn't throw out the answer. After hunting through some other recipe books of the period, I eventually realised that she meant 'cheyenne' pepper: in other words, cayenne pepper.
At the end of this post you will find a slightly more complicated recipe for potted salmon - one I haven't yet tried - which comes from the The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald (1786).
I was a little doubtful at first that smoked fish would taste good without a hint of lemon or any other sort of acidity, but once I'd tried this dish, I was quite smitten by the combination of lightly smoked fish, ground mace and cayenne. This is very good spread on slices of very hot buttered toast. (Have I mentioned that you can make excellent hot, golden toast using a sandwich press and thinly cut day-old baguettes?)
You can clarify the butter, if you have the time and energy, but this really isn't necessary if you're going to serve this within a day or two.
Mace (the hard filigreed case that encloses a whole nutmeg) isn't a spice that's seen in supermarkets these days, but it's well worth hunting down. I buy it whole from Indian spice shops and grind it to a powder using a mortar and pestle. If you can't find mace, very finely grated whole nutmeg will do, but use it sparingly.
I can't give you exact ingredients here: my advice is to add the spices a pinch at a time, and taste the mixture as you go along. You probably won't need to add extra salt to this dish, as I've specified salted butter. If you must use pepper (which I don't think is necessary), use white pepper.
Old-fashioned Potted Salmon (or Trout) with Mace and Cayenne Pepper
To poach the fish:
a large fillet of lightly smoked trout, or a nice fillet of raw salmon
2 bay leaves
a thin slice of lemon, peel on
6 black peppercorns, lightly crushed
a large sprig of fresh thyme
a pinch of salt
hot water to cover
freshly ground mace
bay leaves and sprigs of fresh thyme
Pull the skin off the fish and remove any bones. Put the fish into a large pan and add the bay leaves, lemon slice, peppercorns and thyme. Add just enough hot water to the pan to cover the fish. Turn the heat on under the pan and poach very gently, in barely bubbling water, for 5 to 10 minutes (see my notes above), or until the fish is just cooked through, and beginning to fall into tender flakes on the outside. Don't allow the water to boil vigorously. Remove the fish from the liquid using a slotted spoon, cover and set aside to cool for a few minutes. Don't discard the cooking liquid.
Melt a slab (about 100 g, or one-fifth of a block of butter) in your microwave oven, or in a small pan set over a medium heat.
Using your fingers, pull the warm salmon into big flakes and place on a plate or chopping board. Add the mace and cayenne pepper, one pinch at a time, and mix gently together using your fingertips. Taste as you go along. When the fish is seasoned to your taste, pack it lightly into a flattish dish (or several small ramekins) and moisten with a teaspoon or two of the liquid in which you cooked the fish. Pour the warm melted butter over the fish flakes, prodding the mixture gently with a fork so that the butter fills all the gaps. The butter layer should cover the fish to a depth of one millimetre. Press a fresh thyme sprig and bay leaf onto the top of each dish, and sprinkle with extra cayenne pepper. Refrigerate.
Take the dish out of the fridge an hour or so before you serve it, so the mixture can be easily spread.
Serve with hot buttered toast and a scattering of capers.
Image above from The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald (1786).