Everything great appears to be quite simple, while and everything simple is often acknowledged to be great. True connoisseurs will agree on it. Indeed, the food that seems to be so unpretentious at first sight can surprise you with a fountain of splendid odors and flavors, as well as with both its versatility and exquisiteness. Let us take some fish treat as an example and turn to the old gastronomic traditions set by poor Scandinavian fishermen many centuries ago. It is unlikely that they could imagine their plain gravlax would gain such popularity around the world. However, the fact remains that this variety of marinated salmon has become known far outside of the Nordic coasts. Besides, nowadays there are several different versions of this dish including even the smoked salmon gravadlax.
History traces the dish back to the 14th century, but it is completely possible that its origins go back to much earlier times. It was the staple of coastal dwellers who found a resourceful use for what the cold North Sea gave them.
Gravlax is a simplified and more widely used variant of the traditional Scandinavian name Gravad Lax (or Gravadlax) which can be translated as “buried salmon” or “trenched salmon”. To some extent, it defines the method medieval fishermen used to make the fish they caught edible. So, they dug a hole in the cold ground, made a layer of pine needles on its bottom, buried (the Swedish word grav means “to bury”) salmon (lax or laks) in the hole, and covered it with salt. The fermentation process that took place in such confined space could preserve the fish for almost a year. Probably, the only bothering thing about the dish was its smell.
The curing techniques were gradually improved by experimenting with dill, peppercorns, juniper berries and even beetroot, as well as some flavorful Scandinavian spirits like aquavit. Also, with the technological revolution it became clear that for a nice piece of gravlax salmon can be successfully refrigerated but not buried in the sand.
As a result, the modern gravlax recipe originally implies salmon fillet marinated with salt, sugar and dill, which is the highlight of the formula. By the way, it is said that dill as a very aromatic seasoning has replaced pine needles.
More conservative gourmets may note that it is not quite right to say “smoked gravlax”, because the base of the dish is cured salmon but not smoked or, to be more precise, cold-smoked. However, today there are actually a lot of culinary variations of gravlax, and they do include its smoked version. Besides, before smoking any fish should be first marinated in special brine or rubbed with salt and other spices. Consequently, for the same piece of fragrant gravlax smoked salmon can be pre-cured not only with salt and some spices, but also with dill. This means that the most obvious difference between marinated smoked salmon and gravlax is the presence of dill among the ingredients for curing.