At H. Forman & Son, Salmon Smokers
Smoked salmon is serious business at H. Forman & Son, the East End’s last smoke house, founded by Harry Forman in Stepney in 1905 and run today by his great-grandson Lance Forman at Fish Island in Hackney Wick.
This gleaming enterprise in a snazzy new building on the River Lee – designed in the shape of a salmon and overlooking the 2012 Olympic park – might seem a million miles away from the East End of a century ago, yet Lance, now the fourth generation in the business, is resolute to uphold his family name as synonymous with the finest smoked salmon you could ever taste. Consequently, it is a matter of personal honour for him to ensure that the culture and artisan methods of fish smoking are preserved without compromise. And thus, keeping it alive here in the East End has become Lance’s personal mission, sustaining him with moral courage through an extraordinary sequence of challenges to the family business posed by fire, flood and the shameful caprices of the Olympic authorities.
Harry Forman came originally from Odessa at the very beginning of the twentieth century, one of several who brought the technique and expertise of fish smoking from Eastern Europe to the East End of London and set up factories to provide smoked salmon for the Jewish population. In the early days, salmon was imported from the Baltic and arrived pickled in barrels of salt which gave it a pungent flavour and limited appeal, but then supplies of native Scottish Salmon were discovered through the Billingsgate market and smoked salmon took off, becoming one of the most popular gourmet foods of the twentieth century. Crucial to this success was the development of a mild cure that enhanced the natural flavour of the fish, known as the London Cure.
Over the course of the century, Harry’s son Louis took over and then Louis’ son Marcel, Lance’s father, superceded Louis who died just before Lance was born. When Marcel took charge in 1960, the business had moved to Dalston where Lance recalls visiting as a child. “I remember the Ridley Rd days from when I was six.” he mused, sitting in his modern glass office atop the new smoke house and gazing out over the rooftops of Hackney Wick, “My dad brought home a side of smoked salmon every week, and from the age of fourteen I would be working at the smoke house in my school holidays – I lived it and breathed it. We had to buy all the wild salmon when they were in season then, during the Summer months, and put them in cold storage for the rest of the year, and I remember the excitement of breaking open the crates of fish.”
For twelve years, Lance, a born entrepreneur, pursued other careers with tenacity and ambition, as an accountant, as a political adviser, and negotiating real estate deals in Eastern Europe. Yet he could not have known then that these occupations were developing exactly the skills he would later require to face the three tests that fate had in store for him when he joined the family business in 1996. “I thought I’d get a clearer view by listening to the manager who ran the company for my father, and he said to me, ‘There’s no longer any future in this, but I’ll manage the decline for the family.’” Lance confided with a sardonic grin, “I realised I had to come in – I knew there was a future because we had this wonderful product. Everybody loves smoked salmon!”
It all started well enough. Lance went out on the road as salesman and increased business by twenty five per cent each year, but then in 1998 when he took charge, the factory burnt down. The premises were in Queens Yard, Hackney Wick, where his father had moved Formans in 1981. After struggling for six months in the remains of the building, Lance had the entire structure refurbished. Then in 2000, the River Lee overflowed and put the factory under three feet of water, contaminating it. But, undiscouraged by fire and flood, Lance chose this moment to build a fine new factory across the river on the Hackney Marshes, completed in 2002, barely a year before the possibility of the Olympics was announced, placing Formans squarely at the centre of the proposed athletic stadium.
For the sake of three weeks of sport, two hundred and seventy businesses were displaced from East London, only seventy of which have yet re-established themselves. “You gave up the will to live,” exclaimed Lance, thinking back to that moment and placing a hand on his brow for effect, “Fire, flood and then a compulsory purchase order in five years!” Yet there was so much to play for. Smoked salmon in Britain began in the East End, before the Scots also began producing it, and Formans was the last company left here and Lance had Harry, Louis and Marcel standing behind him who had all worked their entire lives to carry the tradition forward. “You do feel the weight of history,” Lance admitted to me in a rare moment of vulnerability.
“There was a real mix of dishonesty and incompetence from the London Development Agency, they said they would help people move but they did nothing because they expected Paris to win the bid.” revealed Lance, his eyes shining as he became visibly emotional.“A lot of people don’t have the will to fight, but I am fired by a challenge. I became their worst nightmare, I had six years experience in accountancy, two years as a political adviser and three years in real estate. I realised I couldn’t win through the courts, so I appointed a high flying media lawyer. And then, on the day before I was to cross examine Sebastian Coe at a public enquiry, I got the message, ‘If you abandon your cross examination, we’ll do a deal with you.’ I sent a message back to Seb Coe, ‘You can run but you can’t hide.’”
The outcome was that the authority paid for Formans new smoke house, with a restaurant, an art gallery and a party venue overlooking the Olympic site. And, in what Lance Forman now happily describes a “one hundred and eighty degree turn,” the Olympic authority have adopted Formans as a venue of choice for corporate entertainment, even going so far as to claim the entire endeavour as a prime example of the legacy they hope to bequeath to London.
Lance Forman is one of the happiest people you could wish to meet these days, with more schemes underway than the British government and, above all, proud to show off his shining new smoke house kitchen that his great-grandfather Harry Forman would be proud to see. Family honour has been restored, and Lance exports his salmon around the world and supplies London’s top chefs and restaurants.
“People don’t realise what smoked salmon is any more,” he informed me in a whisper of dismay, returning to the core of his passion, clasping his hands evangelically in his eagerness to expose the smelly, slimy varieties done on the cheap, sprayed with smoky flavouring and injected with water, which create the widespread perception of this subtle delicacy. In Lance’s kitchen at Formans, I was able to witness the making of smoked salmon done entirely by hand, in time honoured method, by a highly skilled and self-respecting team of artisans. On the first day, the salmon is gutted, boned and filleted before being left overnight with salt to cure. Next day it is washed to remove almost all the salt and then hung in the smokebox to acquire its flavouring from the smoke of oak chips. The staff are in at four each morning to slice up the smoked salmon so that it can despatched to restaurants and eaten fresh that day because, contrary to popular belief, it is at its very best when fresh.
It was an extraordinary story, illustrating the tenacity and ingenuity that can be required to keep a family business alive. Lance Forman fascinates me as a lone business man who took on a war for the sake of culture and tradition, and thanks to his courage and cunning, the noble art of salmon smoking flourishes here in the East End.
H. Forman & Son’s smokehouse and restaurant, facing the site of the 2012 Olympics.
At the former H. Forman & Son smokehouse in Ridley Rd, Dalston.
The largest salmon ever sold at Billingsgate Market was bought by Louis Forman in 1934, pictured here in a Homburg hat showing off his 74lb Norwegian trophy fish.