"You’re early,” Rob Sgambaro tells me as I walk in the door at Sgambaro’s Signature Seafoods in Edmonton. Clearly a man of precision, he had intended to make use of every minute before my arrival. While Rob finishes up a few tasks at his desk, quietly humming to himself, I browse a wall of awards, certificates and plaque-mounted newspaper articles raving about Sgambaro’s.
The air has a woodsy, lightly smoky scent, like there’s a small wood-burning stove in the corner. Compared to the cold, thin winter air outside, I feel like I’ve stepped into a cozy cabin. I’m ready to put on some slippers and drink hot chocolate. Instead, we sit down at his large wooden desk with neat piles of paper stacked all over it, and watch a video of Rob and his team making cold smoked salmon.
First, they bring in fresh, whole Atlantic salmon as opposed to fillets. During transportation the skin on a whole fish protects the flesh better than fillets wrapped in plastic.
“Nothing beats splitting a salmon and brining it right away,” says Rob. Atlantic salmon has a higher fat content compared to other salmon, which gives it a fantastic flavour profile and finish, explains Rob. The fish are filleted and deboned by hand in the production facility. “It’s not that difficult once you’ve done a quarter million or so,” Rob quips with a grin. Then the fillets are cured for 48 hours in a dry brine that Rob’s perfected over the years.
Once cured, the fillets are washed and then they rest for 24 hours before heading to the smoker. They are cold smoked for three hours to gently infuse the fish with natural hickory wood smoke. Rob is very strict about the quality of hickory chips they use. They have minimal bark – wood chips with a lot of bark on them produce a bitter tasting smoke. After smoking, the fillets still need to be skinned, cooled and sliced before packaging. All told, it’s a five day made-to-order process.
“We take great care of these salmon,” says Rob. “We’re totally all about quality.”
As we walk through the office into the pristine production facility, it’s easy to see the care that Rob and his team take. Production has just finished for the day, and already it’s spotless. There are racks of fillets resting in the fridge, waiting to be smoked the next day, but other than that you wouldn’t even know anyone had been there. Even the smoker is clean!
Back in the office, I only have one question left for Rob: how does one come to be a fish processor in Edmonton? After all, it’s a bit…unusual for a salmon processing company to set up shop in the prairies. Rob explains that he spent seven years traveling as a chef and learned to make smoked salmon in Montreal.
“The first thing I learned was a good brine,” says Rob. Armed with a solid brine recipe, he then got to work on his smoking technique. As chef garde manger at the Intercontinental in Old Montreal, one of Rob’s specialties quickly became his smoked salmon.
“It was a hit,” he says. “Guests were requesting and buying whole sides at the hotel!”
Eventually Rob moved back to Edmonton and started a boutique catering company. After selling a client on his marvelous smoked salmon, Rob quickly realized he needed a smoker – Sgambaro’s Signature Seafoods grew from there, he says, leaning back in his chair with his arms tucked behind his head. It certainly has grown over the past 20 years, thanks to the quality of the fresh, never frozen products.
In addition to the Atlantic cold smoked salmon, Sgambaro’s also makes wild sockeye cold smoked salmon when it’s in season, salmon pâté, jerky, three mustard dill sauce and gravlax (a Scandinavian specialty). Sgambaro’s gravlax is also made with Atlantic salmon, but it’s not smoked. Instead it’s marinated with salt, pepper, sugar, vermouth, brandy, olive oil and fresh dill.
Check out our Sgambaro's salmon gravlax on buckwheat blini recipe!