IN THE Nova Scotia countryside, where fire halls and churches signal the beginnings and endings of towns, where wooden traps piled high on embankments signal the end of the lobster season, you have to search for signs of salmon. Even there, smoked salmon is a delicacy.
Way back, the locals will tell you, when the Scandinavians emigrated to Nova Scotia, they brought with them their skilled art of smoking. But as the process of smoking spread, supplies of the fish dwindled.
Now Nova Scotia's Atlantic salmon are endangered, and have been for the past 20 years. Ever since the ocean feeding grounds of the salmon were discovered in the 1960s to be off the coast of Greenland, some Canadians have pegged the shortage to overzealous Danish fishermen. The Danes, they say, scooped the salmon up before they had a chance to return to Nova Scotia's rivers to spawn. Others blame it on the advent of hydroelectric plants and acid rain. "The real tragedy was pollution," said Loren Swick of the International Atlantic Salmon Foundation, an organization established for the conservation of the fish. "The salmon needs a pristine environment to live in." As a result, the fish moved to cleaner neighborhoods, and now close to 90 percent of North America's Atlantic salmon are caught in Newfoundland.
Augustan McDonald has seen better salmon days. Back in 1949 his season's catch was 541 fish. This year his nets trapped only 65.
McDonald lives in Ballantyne's Cove, one of the several quiet fishing villages in Nova Scotia's northern shore, where the air is as clear as the water and the hands of the fishermen are as rough-edged as the ropes they bait.
Salmon are cleaned and sold on the wharf, where the locals line up before 6 a.m. to wait for McDonald's first salmon nets. The fish don't last long, since his morning catch has been averaging about five fish (the end of the season) and the price is merely $3 a pound.
Mid-afternoon means tea time -- a welcome break for fishermen, McDonald explained -- and that means tea and maybe cold salmon sandwiches. (As for smoked salmon, McDonald shrugged his shoulders with disinterest, "I've only had it once.") Then at 6 p.m. the salmon boat will go out again, heading for the same berth where McDonald's father hung his net years before. McDonald said he can never fish anywhere else, and probably neither will his sons nor his grandsons; the Canadian government hasn't issued any new commercial salmon fishing licenses since 1968.
The lines in McDonald's white-bristled cheeks tightened. "It's not fair for those who fish all their lives," he said bitterly. "They the government are trying to get rid of the nets, they're saving it all for the sport fisherman." That, he added, is how all his fisherman friends feel. It's not hard to believe, considering what a group of fishermen did last year when they were angry about the prices they were getting for squid: They protested in front of a government office building -- where they dumped a huge load of the slimy fish onto the highway.
A map of the spawning cycle of the Atlantic salmon is the wallpaper over the desk of Environment Canada's fishery officer T.G. Kiely. Bare and linoleum-floored, this government building would be familiar anywhere.
"We want to build up our stock of salmon, that's the reason for the commercial restrictions," he said. Although commercial fishermen are restricted by the size of their gear and seasonal limitations, so are the sport fishermen. But, said Kiely, "there's very little commercial fishing."
The coastlines are regularly monitored for salmon offenders, a policy that would have been unheard of at the beginning of the century. Salmon used to be so plentiful then, according to Kiely, that farmers used it as fertilizer.
Now, of the reduced numbers of salmon that are caught in Nova Scotia, not more than half are exported, said the province's Department of Fisheries marketing officer Janice Raymond. (In Washington it is difficult to buy fresh salmon from anywhere in the Atlantic.)
The rest of the salmon caught in Nova Scotia are sold locally at fish pounds resembling the one where Augustan McDonald operates, or to cooks at the province's one-restaurant towns (where the beer is frequently better than the food).
And smoked salmon? Some people produce it in makeshift smokehouses in their back yards, but they are about as easy to find as delis are in Nova Scotia. "No one's ever acquired a taste for it smoked salmon ," said one Nova Scotian. "Who can afford it?" bemoaned another.
Even New York smokehouse managers (who supply smoked salmon to Washington) talk about the high prices of Atlantic salmon. And shipments of the fresh fish to them from Nova Scotia's waters are practically nil. (Most of their salmon comes from the West Coast. Lox -- salmon cured in salt but not smoked -- is also made from the Pacific fish.)
"In the '50s, we used to get 100,000 pounds of salmon a year from Nova Scotia. Now if we get a few hundred pounds, it's accidental," said Conrad Spizz, general manager of Rego's Smoked Fish.
It's easy to pass by the only commercial salmon smoker in Nova Scotia; the once-brilliant Canadian and Danish flags painted on a flaking plywood sign are now barely discernable. But no neons are needed. People already know where the Krauches live.
When Willy Krauch started his business in the early 1960s (a displaced Dane who originally came to Nova Scotia "looking for adventure" according to his son, Dan), he didn't know any English, but he knew how to smoke salmon into a soft shade of orange-pink. Now the whole family is involved in the process -- one son owns half the business, another is a packer, another works the counter and a daughter does a little of everything. The Krauches mail their fish all over the world, but seeing and smelling what goes into the boxes before they are shipped is worth a trip to the tiny town of Tangier.
Entering the simple clapboard smokehouse is like stepping into a cloud where the woodsy smell fills every sense and the moisture seeps into your arms and stays there. If smoked fish perfume could catch on, this is where it should be bottled.
Buying salmon to smoke has never been a problem for Krauch. He gets his from Newfoundland. Four or five times a year he receives salmon shipments (frozen when out of season, packed on ice in season), in loads of 8,000 to 10,0000 pounds each. The Krauches only buy top grade "1" fish, in the hopes that they are fat; the fatter the fish, the better they will be for smoking. A shed-size freezer stores them, a frigid walk-in that looks like a bargain basement for sea shoppers, with headless fish piled every which way, salmon and eel and haddock.
The smokehouse has thawing tanks where the salmon are defrosted -- a process that takes six to eight hours -- or they are put in boxes and thawed in a nearby brook -- a process that takes less than half the time. After the fish are thawed and filleted, they are salted by hand ("Our salt shakers are 80-pound bags," said Dan Krauch) and placed on a wire rack in one of six smokers that look like cedar closets and are fired by locally cut maple or birch wood.
When the fish are firm and won't bend, they're done; the process takes two to three days. Facilities limit the Krauches to smoking only about 1,800 pounds a week; one mid-size New York smokehouse averages 10,000 pounds of salmon for the same amount of time.
Although Dan Krauch said he "couldn't afford to live off eating it," since he is charged full price for his salmon stash -- even though at $10 per pound it's inexpensive by Washington standards -- he prefers it the way the rest of the family does: on dark bread with a little squeeze of lemon juice. Never on a bagel. Never with cream cheese. The Krauches never heard of that until New Yorkers came to town.
Fresh salmon, for Nova Scotians, means poached, with or without hollandaise and maybe a side order of green peas. Here are two recipes from locals who like to experiment. You'll probably have to use Pacific coast salmon (unless you're planning a trip to Nova Scotia).
BETH HOBSON'S SALMON WITH LEMON-RICE STUFFING (6 to 8 servings)
1/3 cup butter
1 cup celery, sliced
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
2 cups water
1 cup uncooked rice
1/4 cup lemon juice
4-pound whole salmon
1 small grapefruit, thinly sliced
Melt butter in a saucepan; add celery, onion and mushrooms. Cook 5 minutes. Mix the thyme, salt, pepper and grated lemon rind with the water and add to the saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add rice and mix well. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked. Stir in lemon juice.
Bone salmon, leaving it in one piece with the skin on, and fill its cavity with the rice stuffing. (Any extra stuffing may be heated separately.) Lace the opening closed with skewers and twine or sew closed.
Grease a large double piece of foil. Put half the grapefruit slices on the foil and top with the fish, then cover fish with rest of grapefruit slices; wrap fish in foil. Cook on a barbecue grill over low fire for 1 hour or in a 450-degree oven, 10 minutes per 1-inch thickness. From "Prize Recipes of Lakevale"
DUCK COVE INN FISH CHOWDER (6 servings)
3 potatoes, cubed
2 medium onions, diced
1/2 pound haddock
1/2 pound cod
1/4 pound salmon
3 cups light cream or milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Place potatoes and onions in a pot with enough water to cover. Simmer until done, approximately 30 minutes. Set aside with its cooking water.
Meanwhile, poach the fish in water to barely cover. Add the poaching liquid to the potatoes and onions. Remove any bones from the fish. Flake the fish and add to the potatoes and onions. Add the cream or milk and heat, approximately 30 to 45 minutes, being careful not to boil.