Thursday, June 21, 2012

Yukon Dreaming

Another year and another summer is going by leaving me one more year removed from the last time I tasted the best salmon, by far, that I have had the pleasure of sampling.  It was Yukon Gold, better known as a Yukon King Salmon, and it is probably more scarce than gold from the same river these days.  The Yukon River is the largest river in Alaska and the kings (chinook) native to that river grow fatter and tastier than any other wild salmon out there.  They grow so big and fatty in order to make that long trek up the river to spawn.  This makes them taste better than anything else available and it is one of the reasons I have sought after these fish every summer since my first taste.

It was 2006 I believe, when I first got to see one of these Yukon monsters.  I was working in a market in New York and we received a small shipment, about three fish, in a box that weighed close to 100lbs.  The fish I was allowed to sample weighed at least 30lbs and it was about as wide as most sockeye are long.  The fat lines on the belly seemed to be as wide as my fingernail, enough to make the biggest of farmed salmon jealous.  The great part was this fat was all natural, all wild.  My co-workers and I tasted the salmon raw, of course, letting the natural oils melt into our mouths and evaporate into our taste buds.  The salmon reminded me of eating great pork that just seems to fall off the bone if you just happen to look at it.  But the flavor was not of the earth, it was of the ocean, as if the waters had given birth to a savory butter intermingled with notes of rich salmon and creamy melon flavored oysters.  I was able to garner 3 or 4 slices raw and had the privilege of trying a portion seared rare.  The crispy skin turned out to be more succulent than thick bacon, due to all the fat, and the rich flavor was not lost in the preparation.  I don't think I took this experience for granted, but it's easy to say that I have waited anxiously ever since for my next bite.  I have tasted some wonderful salmon since, be it from the Copper River, Columbia River, Bristol Bay, or Kalamath, but nothing has come close to the complexity and richness of the Yukon King.

That brings me to the present where I have just received the fish report coming out of the Yukon.  It looks like another year without the king of kings.  There just are not enough fish to commercially sell this year.  Actually the report is a little more disturbing.  There might not be enough fish for the natives to fish for subsistence.  Over the past few years some fishing has been allowed for these kings so that families living along the river could have fish to feed themselves.  Numbers are being reported to be at an all time low, so that privilege may be taken away.  Authorities are hoping that the fish are just late to show due to heavy ice interfering with their passage.  We all will know for sure in just a few days.  It is possible that the fishery is closed completely.  For now though I will have to wait another summer to get my hands on one of these spectacular fish.  I want the kings to come back in full force and if that means I have to wait 50 years I will.  I won't ever forget how wonderful salmon can be.  I hope if the population of these big monsters ever returns to its historical numbers, that we remember to protect this special resource, whether its one fish passing to spawn or one slice being served at a time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Good News?

I wanted to share an interview by Ray Hilborn that I came across this morning. (See article here.)  It is a short excerpt but I think you can get the gist.  Professor Hilborn sheds some light in an otherwise gloomy forecast of the future of the seafood industry.  He seems to believe that good management practices are in place (in some areas) and not all news is bad news when it comes to the status of our world fisheries stocks.

I think he makes a good point about sustainability when he says "...sustainability doesn’t have anything to do with how many fish are there; it has to do with the management system."  The Pacific halibut fishery is a prime example supporting this thesis.  Halibut stocks are lower than they were three years ago, but so are the quotas of how many fish can be landed.  The fish is 'sustainably' managed and therefore deemed sustainable, in light of the decreased availability of large fish.  

I do believe that the issue is much more complicated than this, if it weren't there wouldn't be as many books out there written by good people who thoroughly believe that the state of our shared global fisheries is in deep trouble.  The issue I take with this line of reasoning is that finding the right management system may be harder than it sounds.  Each fish stock is represented by a singular species that has its own traits and habits.  Different species of fish respond to fishing pressure differently.  What works for wild salmon may not be the best management for stripped bass.  Then there are the factors of by-catch, discards and pollution that also affect stocks.  All of these must be taken into consideration when evaluating which management system must go into place to effectively and sustainably manage a fish population.   

This line of thought however is not disagreeing with what Professor Hilborn is saying, it's only stating that creating the proper fisheries management system for each species is a difficult task that can not be exercised effectively without the help of many involved parties.  These include the Federal Government, scientists, fishermen, and third party analysts.  All must cooperate to collect and implement the data that is out there to ensure the prosperity of our fisheries.

At the end of the day what Professor Hilborn is saying makes sense.  If we can develop management systems for our stocks that ensure species prosperity and then vehemently abide by and protect those systems, then it is possible to strike a sustainable balance between human appetite and the health of our oceans.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel and we are going to need sustainable management to get there.  Anything worth doing is typically going to be difficult.  Saving our ocean's marine life is definitely worth doing.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Live Scallops, As Good As It Gets

BlackSalt is getting a treat shipped directly to the market today that I usually get really excited about.  We are expecting a shipment from a company in MA that deals directly with the fishermen who harvest live sea scallops.  I believe that eating scallops live is the best way to have them and an experience that will change the way you buy scallops.

Most scallops you get served in restaurants and markets are treated in some way or frozen at sea.  Some of the finer establishments will serve what they call "dry" scallops but even these can be labeled as such as long as their time in a saline mixture is less than 24 hours.  Confusing, I know, but there are worse options out there.  The 24 hour "dry" is a good product and necessary for keeping scallops fresher longer.  We buy scallops at BlackSalt that have never been dipped in any solution.  These are beautiful and are a true treat, but they do not keep long.  The shelf-life on these scallops is shortened because they come off the knife and into the bucket, then they hit our stand not too far removed from the boat.

Here is an important point: The less your seafood is handled and the closer you buy it from the boat, the fresher and tastier it is.  This being said, I do not believe you can get a better scallop than one you purchase still alive.  The company we are purchasing from operates right on the docks and buys directly from day-boats, ensuring that you are getting product at its freshest, shipped from the arriving boats the same day.  The scallops are harvested using a pump dredge and then filtered for two hours on board a vessel named The Jessica Susan. She operates on the outer Cape to harvest these beautiful scallops and her captain is Rodney Alvilla.  The scallop inside the shell averages to be about a 10/20 scallop, that means you get about 10 to 20 scallop meats per pound.  If you are lucky you might get a female that has a beautiful red roe sac attached to the meat.  Do not discard this delicacy, served with the scallop intact it will intensify your experience.  In Europe, this is often the only way scallops are served, with the roe attached.  The Europeans may be ahead of us in this matter, for I find that scallops with the roe attached are an all too uncommon dining extravagance.   As far as the flavor, well I believe it is the taste of a scallop at its purest, but you'll have to go by BlackSalt to see for yourself.

Monday, June 4, 2012

American Mussel Farm Trip

Recently Jeff Black and I took a trip to Rhode Island to visit our good friends at American Mussel Harvesters.  AMH sells east coast mussels,  a variety of oysters, and east coast clams all over the country. They specialize in fresh shellfish and also farm oysters and mussels themselves with the beautiful salt ponds of Rhode Island and open ocean as their backdrop.  We also visited the Town Dock, which specializes in squid and also sells some fresh product from short trip and day boats.  I just wanted to share some pictures from that great trip.

 To the left is a picture of one of AMH's boats working their oyster cages.  Each black buoy represents an oyster cage.  Seed grows out to about an inch and is placed here in cages where it feeds on the algae rich currents.  In this photo the boats are pulling up the cages to clean them of hitchhikers like mussels and creatures that resemble sea squirts.  Its a difficult and time consuming job, but it must be done to protect the prized oysters that are inside the cages.

To the right is a photo of one of the cages that has been pulled aboard the boat.  Using scrapers and power washers the tiny creatures that have hitched a ride will be cleaned away so that the oysters inside the cage will be able to feed and prosper.  The accepted term for these type of intruders is bio-fouling.  The cages are suspended off bottom and inside are Umami and Quonset Oysters that we carry at BlackSalt.  The Quonset oysters are typically a little larger than the Umami Oysters and are named after a Navy metal structure that has a round metal roof and was typically built by the Navy Seabees.  These structures still dot the Rhode Island landscape, though the Navy presence has been decreased.  The waters here produce oysters that are very flavorful, with hints of vegetable, savory, brine and a nuttiness that finishes clean and sweet.

To the left, a beautiful oyster from the cage, nascent in its stage of life, very soon it will come to a raw bar near you full of flavor and good times.  To the right, some of the mussels or bio-fouling cleaned from the outsides of the cage.  Hey, no one gets a free ride!

Porgy being landed
While visiting the Town Dock we happened to luck out and be there when one of their day-boats was arriving with a days worth of work.  Check out this trophy black bass in the photo at right.  Most of the fish we saw were still alive.  At the 'Dock the catch

will be graded and separated and then sold.  Usually fish comes into harbor in the morning and goes out that same day.  It just doesn't get any better than this.

Thanks again to the people at AMH and Town Dock, especially Patrick and Laura.  We had a great time visiting your top notch facilities and seeing all the quality product.  Its great to see companies doing the right things and producing great shellfish and fish.