Put Down That Fish!
Counterfeit Scottish smoked salmon may never engage the attention of the producers of Sixty Minutes or Hard Copy, but for Joe Williamson and his wife, Margaret, it's a topic that inspires passion. The couple, along with their two children, daughter Jo Ann, now 17, and son James Alexander, now 16, arrived in Houston in 1984. Williamson père had been in the oil business, living near Aberdeen, the Scottish city that houses most of the enterprises associated with producing crude in the North Sea. The oil business in Houston in 1984 was not any healthier than in Aberdeen, and the Williamsons found themselves looking for a new source of income.
A friend in Scotland asked the couple to help him find an outlet in Houston. Instead of just finding an outlet, Williamson switched careers in his mid-fifties and became the USA importer and distributor for a line of premium Scottish salmon called Scottish Seawild. Today, Williamson is as conversant with every detail of smoked salmon production as he was once in command of statistics about drilling fluid pressures, column thickness, permeability factors, pipeline capacities and OPEC production quotas. This time around, wife Margaret, who once ran the gourmet food department at the renowned Marks & Spencer department store in London, is the CEO -- and he is the (entire) staff. The business is run out of their spacious home in The Woodlands.
For the Williamsons, American business ethics are the serpent in the Edenic Garden of Free Enterprise. Margaret explains, "I went to convent schools, from preschool until I graduated from Notre Dame at 18, and my father was a policeman in a small English town who thought the right path to be a narrow one. I still have a difficult time understanding how some people can operate their businesses without any regard for the truth."
The Williamsons don't mind competition. For example, Petrossian, the venerable Paris-based caviar dealer once patronized by Picasso and a squadron of exiled grand dukes and duchesses, branched out into the Scottish smoked salmon business a few years ago, around the time it opened a New York City operation. Petrossian has the Williamsons' blessing.
Joe Williams first explains what Scottish smoked salmon is and why, for professional chefs who have the taste bud equivalent of perfect pitch, it is worth the money.
"The Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, is what is caught or farmed in Scotland. Unlike the Pacific species, it does not die after spawning but returns to the ocean. The food a salmon eats during its lifetime determines its flavor, and the foods available to salmon in the waters around Scotland give it a better flavor than any other does. That is one of the secrets of Scottish salmon's quality. A man named A.J. Sutherland farms our salmon on the northeast coast of Scotland, near the little town of Portsoy. He also sells his salmon under the name 'Gourmet's Choice.' Farmed salmon do not have the bruises associated with net-caught wild salmon. Line-caught wild salmon is considered better still, but it will cost you $60 a pound." (The Scottish Seawild goes for $27.98 a pound at Central Market.)
"The Scots are very clever with the wood used for smoking the salmon. They buy oaken barrels that have been used for aging whiskey in the United States. Sometimes the aging goes on for many years. Those barrels they lease to the Spaniards, who use them to age sherry and brandy. A barrel may be used in a sherry solera for up to 50 years. Then they bring the barrels to Scotland to use for aging single-malt whiskeys. That can go on for another 50 years. Then the barrels are ground up and added to the smoking oven. Some say they can taste the spirits and wines in the salmon. The fish are salted and brined before the smoking. The smoking (cold smoking, which is done at temperatures of 80 to 110 degrees, never hotter) takes longer than some other processes. For Scottish smoked salmon, the smoking has to be done in Scotland, not England or elsewhere.
"Then, our salmon is never frozen and is sent here by airfreight, not by ship like the frozen product. It has a retail shelf life of about three weeks if it is kept at the temperature we use in our cold-storage facility, 28 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be stored at below freezing because of the salt content."
The Williamsons can quote the relevant law regarding deceptive trade practices on the Texas books and the Federal Trade Commission's "Deception Policy Statement." Despite the existence of such laws, the Williamsons also can offer up catalogs and advertisements where other fish "perhaps from Chile, which you can buy frozen for 95 cents a pound" are offered up as their beloved Scottish variety. While a bottle of wine has to be truthfully labeled or else it will never find its way onto a U.S. shelf, there seems to be plenty of pseudo-Scottish salmon, even right here in Houston, Texas.
"It has to be labeled 'Product of Scotland,' " Joe Williamson explains, "and it is called 'Scottish Smoked Salmon.' It is against United Kingdom law to label any non-Scottish salmon with those two exact phrases. For instance, 'smoked Scottish salmon' or 'Scottish-style smoked salmon' means it is not the genuine product." Such products are available in Houston, so the Williamsons' warning can spare the serious gourmet the stigma of serving spurious Scottish salmon.
The Williamsons have confronted several retailers, writing letters to the businesses. Their greatest ire has been directed at a mail-order catalog. The catalog lists mail-order beefsteaks for the most part, but the holiday catalog a few years ago had text going on about salmon that was served by the British royal family, was made in Scotland and was done according to techniques going back "more than 4,000 years."
"Was it served at the Last Supper?" Joe Williamson snorts. Research suggests that commercial smoking of salmon over whiskey barrel chips goes back to the 19th century, but no later. Regarding the royal family's tastes, Margaret Williams dispatched a letter to Colonel Christopher Pickup (OBE); the secretary of the Royal Warrant Holders Association located in Buckingham Palace. The good knight had his assistant secretary reply that "As an Association we cannot get involved in trading matters and qualities of products" but was willing to opine the particular purveyor did not hold a royal warrant and was thus "not entitled to call himself Royal." An earlier letter about another claimant to the Queen's Custom was answered on Buckingham Palace stationery by the secretary to the Royal Household Tradesmen's Warrants Committee of the Lord Chamberlain's Office. That letter noted that based on "the differences in legislative practices in the United Kingdom, it would be more appropriate for the Embassy in Washington to respond." This is definitely classier than an e-mail from the Better Business Bureau or a spot on Akin's Army.
As long as the Williamsons are in business, there'll be nae spurious salmon-mongers sleeping easily in this republic.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.