Ever since he designed and built his own smokehouse in the courtyard of his warehouse home in Stoke Newington, Ole Hansen has been making waves in the fine food industry and he now supplies smoked salmon to everyone from Alain Ducasse to Nuno Mendes. We caught up with him over a shot of Fisk to discover the tricks and the textures of his trade.
The achingly cool confines of an artistically dilapidated cul-de-sac in Stoke Newington might seem a strange place for someone to practise the traditional craft of smoking fish. As Ole Hansen bounds around the corner to meet me, it’s easier to imagine this shockingly tall Norwegian striding through the Scandinavian snow of his homeland than it is stalking around warehouses in North East London – but as soon as he steps into the tiny smoking rooms where his enterprise first began, surrounded by drying salmon skins and bowlfuls of steel fish hooks, he looks completely at home.
Smoking is in Ole’s blood; his great-grandfather, Lyder-Nilsen Lydersen, first devised the family’s special recipe for smoking salmon back in 1923 and both his grandfather and Ole himself still use it today. It’s an appreciation for preserving this classic method, combined with a strong sense of food nostalgia that spurred Ole into reviving and reinventing the family industry:“I remembered this taste from my childhood when I was sitting on the treeless tundra of north Norway. I had just been fishing trout with my father. I took out a packed lunch that my mother prepared with homemade bread and my grandfather’s smoked salmon. I think the starting point was my desire to recreate this lost taste from my childhood.”
For most people, building up a business from scratch is a daunting project and even Ole admits that at times it was tough. He started his career studying Sound Art, before setting up his salmon business with just £300 in his bank account and a pile of salvaged building materials to his name. He was, however, undeterred: “It became clear in my mind that if I just used my hands, my abilities, the accumulated knowledge and the hardships and struggles from past times, I was steadfast, set, that I would make it.”
“I filleted my first salmon to a YouTube video because I was a bit insecure that my filleting skills were not good enough. And then I salted it and I smoked it and I sat outside of the smokehouse in my pyjamas all night logging the temperatures.”
“One of the features that my grandfather believed in was that the salmon needed to move in the wind. So we created a gale force 8 wind in our chamber.”
Today, things in the business have become a little more high tech. For one, Ole can now control his smokehouse temperature from his iPhone, but, at the root of it all, it’s his dedication to the integrity of his craft that still shines through.
“I think it was a connection to the salmon. Honouring the food. Or maybe it’s a curiosity that I have, not leaving any stone unturned. An artisanal craft is like that – always scrutinising and always trying to get to the bottom of things: following a thread of honesty.
It’s this appreciation for the artisan that led Ole to this particular patch of London, where he lives in an enclave of creatives: “I love Stoke Newington because it’s like a little village and I’m a country boy in the end,” he explains. “It has a reputation and a history of being an area of change: women’s right to vote; the Clissold park philanthropy; the writers that come from here; the free thinking that’s happened here.”
“I think the starting point was my desire to recreate this lost taste from my childhood.”
It seems that the try-anything atmosphere of possibility and opportunity in the area fits perfectly with Ole’s chosen job, as he explains: “There’s a sense of great independence that comes with being the artisan…I wanted to do that when I started my business, I wanted to go against the stream.”
Going against the stream is something that he’s never been afraid of, as he admits: “I think most people thought I was mad, but I know I’m mad, so it’s OK. I think it’s good to be mad rather than being mediocre and normal.” And there’s certainly nothing mediocre about Ole and his salmon.