The most fascinating thing about gravlax, other than the finished dish, is the history. It’s a Nordic method of preserving fish and the word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which means grave. Lax simply means salmon.
Historically, the fish would have been salted and buried under cold earth, and a fermentation process would have occurred. I like the fact that it is one of those traditions that has maintained a place in the face of refrigeration and supply that means we no longer need to preserve like we once did. I think it proves the importance of the dish.
I learned to make gravlax from Walter Burke, whose wife was originally Swedish. With time, gravlax has become a more cured preparation rather than a fermented one. Instead of being buried under earth, it is more often set in sugar and salt to cure. Often strong flavours, such as juniper and dill and pepper, or sometimes aquavit, are added to the mix.
I still think it’s important to put a weight on top of the cure mix, not so much for tradition but to push any moisture out of the fish. It also speeds up the curing process a little bit and produces quite a firm, compressed fish.
I’ve used other fish, but I find salmon to be the best. Kingfish, if it is cured for too long, becomes quite dry because it doesn’t have the same fat content as salmon. With gravlax, I’m quite traditional. The only time I ever use it is in context: on a piece of rye bread with mustard, or as a substitute for smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese and pickles.
Gravlax is also a good introduction to the open sandwich. People have tried to introduce them in restaurants here, but they have never quite taken off. They haven’t made the impression that the taco has. I think one of the reasons I like them, though, is that I really like pumpernickel. It is nutty and slightly sweet, with notes of chocolate and coffee, and the denseness can handle the stronger flavours of cured and preserved fish.
When I travelled to Sweden last year, I found that with platters of cured, smoked and pickled fish, the most sensible accompaniment is a shot of aquavit and a glass of water. In Denmark, they have a toast for eating herring with an aquavit chaser: “Cheers. And let the fish swim.”
Out of Step sauvignon blanc, Lusatia Park Vineyard, Yarra Valley ($23) – Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc
Please don’t be intimidated by the time required to cure the salmon. It is a simple process and once cured it will last a week in the fridge. If you choose to cure half a fillet, pick the half closest to the head as it cures more evenly than the tail end.
- 1 side of salmon
- 150g salt
- 180g sugar
- ¼ tsp ground white pepper
- ½ bunch dill, fronds picked and chopped
- 1 shot of your preferred spirit: Pernod, vermouth, vodka or
- When you purchase the salmon, ensure it has been pin-boned and that the skin is intact.
- Combine the salt, sugar, pepper and dill. Line a shallow tray with cling film large enough to hold the side of salmon. Sprinkle a quarter of the salt mix over the cling film. Lay the salmon skin-side down on the salt and sprinkle over the remainder of the salt mix. Gently pat the salt mix down to “bury” the salmon. Drizzle your preferred spirit over the entire mass, then cover the fish with cling film and apply a gentle weight. (A small chopping board is good for this.) Return the salmon to the fridge for 24 hours.
- When the time has elapsed, rinse the fish under cold, running water and pat dry. Rewrap the gravlax and return to the fridge until you are ready to use it.
- To slice the salmon, take a large sharp knife and cut horizontally from the head towards the tail in long thin slices. It’s best to slice the gravlax when it’s completely cold, so place the gravlax in the freezer for half an hour to aid this process.
- Serve the sliced gravlax with a loaf of rye bread or pumpernickel, some pickled cucumbers, a pot of creme fraiche and/or the mustard sauce recipe. I also quite like a little horseradish paste on the side.
Makes 1 cup
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp wholegrain mustard
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 2 tsp castor sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 egg yolk
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 3 tbsp cream
- 1 generous tbsp chopped dill
- Whisk together the mustards, vinegar, sugar, salt and egg yolk in a medium bowl. While whisking, pour in the oil in a thin stream until it is incorporated.
- In a separate bowl, whip the cream until it is stiff, then fold the cream and the chopped dill through the sauce.
- 2 small Lebanese cucumbers
- 2 tbsp chopped dill
- 150ml white wine vinegar
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- Slice the cucumber into thin rounds (a mandolin is useful for this). Toss the cucumber in the salt and let it drain in a colander for half an hour.
- Pat the cucumber dry with a cloth and place it with the dill in a tight-fitting jar.
- Whisk the vinegar and sugar together and pour over the sliced cucumber. Leave for a few hours before using.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 9, 2014 as "Miracle curing".
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