We Made It: Salmon-smoker Ole Martin-Hansen

Norwegian-born Ole Martin-Hansen is one of the rare breed of food professionals for whom hand-on preparation is not just a lifestyle trend or a method for cynically adding value, but a way of life. His smokehouse in Stoke Newington, North London - now with an outpost in the Cotswolds too - is a beacon of simplicity, a place where he, in his own words, “does just one thing” and tries to perfect that thing as he works.

As theartsdesk's Joe Muggs found out, being trend-driven was never really an option when he turned to fish-smoking: although he’s a very modern operator with a background in the digital arts and an internet-driven business for his produce, in a very real way, Martin-Hansen was born to do what he does.

JOE MUGGS: How long have you been a fish smoker?

OLE MARTIN-HANSEN: This is my fifth year. Although we were cold-smoking on the tundra when we'd go fishing when I was a kid - but my grandfather used to do it, I never really saw the process. So it's just me having learned this from studying the books and then notebooks, and also trying the product on my family to get it as close to the taste as possible. Five years of doing that.

And so if you're trying to replicate what your grandfather did, do you have to get Norwegian wood to do the smoking?

Almost. The beech wood he used was from the south, his suppliers are no longer in service but I have a very very good supplier from Denmark who runs a family business, and they are specialised in only producing beech. And the juniper I use is from my brother's farm in the southwest of Norway.

What made you want to do this as a serious undertaking?

It was a goal of doing it full-time as a business from the beginning; I had to work at the weekends to pay my rent to start with, but I had a positive cash-flow from very early on, and I was able to live from the company very early on. But it was really driven by wanting to do an artisanal project full-time, to look at something closely, to perpetually improve on the taste, on the process, on the perception, on stimulating people's senses to the maximum, and most of all on recreating the lost taste from my childhood that was vivid in my memory.

I had that salmon on the tundra when I was watching the midnight sun coming up as a child, being five years old, fishing with my father and my grandfather, and it is a lot of things. Like with the sound art I did before, for me it's about going back to a world that is real, in a world that is very unreal.

Was there much of a leap from being a sound artist to working with salmon?

Well I play piano for the salmon now, and write songs for them. But in fact there are a lot of similarities, it's not so different, it's an art and I'm using my sensitivity as an artist in almost every part of the business. It's creativity every day, solving problems, defining packaging - it's all for me very much as being an artist, just as when I was doing pure fine art. The only thing that is involved differently here is the transaction between the customer and me: there is someone giving me money for my work which is great.

Do you have a favourite part of the process?

I think lifting the salmon out of the boxes they come in. They've been less than 16 hours out of the water and they're looking just so beautiful, I love the smell of fresh fish which brings me back to childhood. And cleaning them one by one, it's just a very nice moment, honouring the presence of a very very intricate and fascinating and persisting animal.

Do you have plans to branch out or will you keep to this pure core of what you do?

The idea is to next year hopefully open a branch in New York, and hopefully in Brussels and Paris too. We'll see how many we can do, but the idea is not to have one big smokehouse, but to have little independent smokehouses. It's a continuation of what I've set up in Stoke Newington with similar sites and people who really care for what they do, being employed.

This is what we are as a company, we are run on a family business model - the people in the company are very close knitted and very proud to do what we do. It's like being a baker, passing on the skill to others, it's part of being the artisan and having an apprentice coming in - a real apprentice, not just some hopeless kid that is sent from the government. There needs to be an interest.

This is where the love of all things artisan can really prove that it's more than a trend - if it can be passed on and replicated.

It's about sustainability. It's interesting, I have some Italian people working on my stall, and all of them, coming from a country with a strong artisanal foothold in their society, you can see they're happy if they have to be the baker or whatever. They are more able to jump into something that the family have been doing for generations and be proud.

A proper artisan is someone who just does one thing, and being allowed to learn something like that is a big honour for someone I think, and involves trust. You look at the Japanese sushi chefs where you have to work for 20 years before you can do this one specific cut; it's about respect, and I think it's sustainable, and it gives culture to the cultures to the countries and cities that we reside in, which is vital for our systems and for our happiness!


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