LONDON — Lance Anisfeld is a dapper and cheerful London businessman who works out of a building shaped like a fish. He sports silver salmon-shaped cufflinks, fish decals adorn the door of his office, and a poster on the front of his desk claims that “Fish Tremble At The Sound of My Name.” There also is a faint aroma of fish, even in the reception area, where visitors can view a giant aquarium in a glassed-in wall.
Yes, we are in Smoked Salmon Central. And Anisfeld, commonly known as Lance Forman to match the family-founded company he heads, H Forman and Son, is in celebratory mood: The company is about to get priceless European Protected Geographic Indicator (PGI) recognition for his fish.
It’s a seal of approval given to very specific products such as Champagne, which can only come from a particular region. Forman’s application is for the way in which his salmon is prepared, known as the London Cure. He’s already got UK government approval and European recognition is expected early next year. If finalized, Forman salmon will become the only London food and drink product to sport PGI.
The Forman salmon – all from Scotland, both wild and farmed – is hand-prepared by a group of craftsmen and women, many of whom have been with the company for years. Smoked salmon prepared the Forman way is miles away from the “pile them high, sell them cheap” commercial smoked salmon (mostly from Norway), which is ubiquitous on Britain’s high streets.
Deep inside Forman’s London headquarters, staffer Darren Matson kindly demonstrates his salmon slicing skills. He actually holds the Guinness Book of World Records award for the fastest time to bone and slice a smoked salmon fillet — an astonishing one minute and 11 seconds. In watching Matson, upon learning that all the slices must be the same weight to qualify for the Guinness record, you realize what an amazing achievement it is.
Usually food companies pride themselves on commercial secrecy as to what goes into their product. Not Lance Forman.
The London Cure is an astonishingly simple way of preparing the fish, as this reporter learned – suitably white-coated and hair-netted – while standing on the processing floor of the company’s premises. Hundreds of salmon fillets are first salted and then smoked, using plain logs of oak. Nothing else is added – “so that the taste is of salmon, and not of the smoke,” says Forman.
Forman provides a taste of this deceptively simple delicacy, which is nothing like smoked salmon as most Brits know it. It instantly transports me back to my childhood, when Sunday mornings were spent with my father and a trip to the local kosher deli for “a quarter pound of the best, please,” together with bagels and rye bread.
Forman looks at my face and grins. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
Now in his early 50s, Forman has had a long-term love affair with smoked salmon since the age of six – when he learned to slice a whole salmon fillet. He tastes his gourmet product every day as the company boxes up salmon – and a whole slew of other top-of-the-range foodie goodies – destined for high-end restaurants and five-star department stores such as Harrod’s and Harvey Nichols.
He has London Beth Din accreditation for his smoked salmon and there are plans in place for other eligible produce now made on the premises to receive the same. Forman, who exports to many places in the Middle East, would love to break into the Israeli market. However, to date he’s not been able to persuade an importer to bring in his smoked salmon, which is much more expensive than what is currently available.
‘Have you tasted smoked salmon in Israel? It’s disgusting. It’s hard or it’s slimy’
“But have you tasted smoked salmon in Israel?” he laments. “It’s disgusting. It’s hard or it’s slimy, and then people say, oh, I don’t like smoked salmon. And I say, no, you haven’t tasted smoked salmon.”
It’s fair to say that Lance Forman’s entry into the world of fish is not typical. He is the fourth generation of his family to run his business, begun by his great-grandfather Aaron, known as Harry, in the East End of London in 1905. Forman’s is probably the last of around a dozen Jewish-owned companies which worked out of the East End, buying fish from the UK shores rather than bringing it in from abroad.
Forman is a Cambridge graduate, once president of the prestigious debating society, the Cambridge Union, and initially qualified as an accountant.
He went to work for Price Waterhouse and before the collapse of the Berlin Wall began specializing in its privatization work, spending a year working in Poland.
“For me this was amazing because my father came from Poland, from a town called Nowysacz, near Krakow. The family was taken to Lvov at the outbreak of the war and were then taken prisoner by the Russians and sent to a Siberian camp,” says Forman.
Eventually his father’s family was sent to Tashkent; at the end of the war his father and younger sister made it to London to live with an aunt and uncle who had left Poland earlier, and their parents arrived in 1947. “So you can understand that I was fascinated to be in Poland. I loved it.”
Forman, then still known as Lance Anisfeld, spent three years working for Price Waterhouse and the potential business opportunities in eastern Europe seemed to him overwhelmingly endless. At a conference in Kiev he met a British architect who had similar views, and the two decided to try to go into real estate.
Both men handed in their respective notices – “but literally, within a week of that happening, I was head-hunted to become special adviser to [Cabinet MInister] Peter Lilley at the Department of Trade and Industry.”
He stayed with Lilley until the 1992 election but when the politician moved to the Department of Social Security, Forman decided not to join him. Instead he went back to work with his architect friend, acting as consultants in eastern Europe.
But things were nowhere near as healthy as before. Getting people to invest in real estate became an uphill struggle. Eventually the architect moved to Kiev and Forman himself returned to the UK, although he remained a sleeping partner in their business. He chose to go into the family company of H Forman and Son and brought to it considerable financial, political and real estate experience. As he recalls it, every bit of that was quickly needed.
“Soon after I joined the family business we were stricken by the most horrendous catastrophes. I joined in 1994. In 1996, after we’d grown the business by 30 percent and taken over our neighboring factory, we had a grand opening. Two years after that we had a catastrophic fire which burned down three-quarters of the enlarged place.
The Formans managed to keep the business afloat, but after 40 years in that location for 40 years couldn’t find a place to relocate. “Instead, it was an opportunity to rebuild, which we did,” says Forman.
Another re-opening – but then within a year the local river burst its banks and H Forman and Son was completely flooded. Six months later they relocated and after a further 18 months, they finished rebuilding.
“We built a really beautiful facility where we thought we’d be for the next 30 years – and within one year of moving in we were told, you have to move out because this is where the Olympic Stadium is going to be. So – fire, flood, and compulsory purchase within the space of five years,” says Forman.
In fact, the Forman factory was on the site where the athletics cindertrack would be built. Forman geared up for the fight of his life.
“The Olympics was portrayed as not being about sport, but about the regeneration of east London. They had to do that because legally, they would not have had powers to acquire the land for a sporting event. Regeneration allowed for compulsory purchase. But all the evidence showed that this was not about regeneration at all, but about the Olympics, about the sport.”
Fighting back against Forman was an equally determined Ken Livingstone, then the mayor of London. Livingstone dubbed Forman “the fish-man.”
All these arguments took place before London was awarded the 2012 Olympics – the successful bid was announced in 2005.
“Nobody lifted a finger to help us: they didn’t want to recognize that there was a problem, because that might risk them losing the bid [for the Games].”
After endless months of complex negotiations, Sebastian Coe – the Olympic athlete turned MP who, as Lord Coe, became chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games – was due to give evidence at a public inquiry. And Lance “fish-man” Forman was due to cross-examine Lord Coe as to exactly what was the motivation for the compulsory purchases.
‘For us it was key, part of our heritage, to stay in the East End of London’
The point about compulsory purchase is that it is usually, though not always, below market value in order to enable a quick sale. In the Forman case the original sum on offer was thousands of pounds below what it would cost to allow the company to relocate yet again and continue trading.
“The day before I was due to question Seb Coe, I was called by the London Development Agency. They said, if you drop your cross-examination, we’ll do a deal. So I said, ok, let’s do a deal. The deal was to fund our relocation. We weren’t looking to profit from this. And for us it was key, part of our heritage, to stay in the East End of London.”
When the battle was over, Forman found yet another site and this time it was designed by his old architect business partner — in the shape of a fish.
The latest incarnation of H Forman and Son has been at its new site since 2007 and has expanded from just producing fish to a separate restaurant and catering division. The restaurant has just won an award in this year’s London Venue Awards for “Best Unusual or Unique Venue” – its diners can look through a viewing gallery to the smokehouse below, or step out onto a platform where they can see the Olympic Park.
There is a certain irony that a quintessentially Jewish food, devised by Jews in the Baltic as a way of preserving fish, has become a cornerstone of British gourmet eating – and, indeed, forms the core of many a high-class Christmas hamper. But the happy marriage of fresh Scottish salmon and canny Jewish preparation has led to a sublime taste.
Forman, a passionate advocate for his product, is a purist about the way in which it should be eaten.
“No lemon,” he insists. “That just disguises the flavor.” The London Cure, he says, needs no extras.