Articles in Fishing
Fresh seafood is the beating heart of Chef Michael Cimarusti’s culinary universe. At his Michelin-starred Providence, named “Best LA Restaurant” by food critic Jonathan Gold for the last three years, Cimarusti turns the ocean’s bounty into delicate, edible art. That same super premium seafood is also on offer at his chowder and oyster joint, Connie & Ted’s. “We take fish seriously and want our customers to do the same,” he says.
That’s a challenge in Los Angeles, a rare coastal city far removed from major fishing grounds where both chefs and home cooks rely on fish shipped in from other regions. “People are always asking where they can buy great fresh fish,” says Cimarusti. “There are so many issues — traceability, the sustainability of various species. Concerned cooks want to buy fish with integrity. They want to feel good about what they eat and have it taste good. It’s difficult to know what to buy here.”
Cimarusti addressed that challenge head-on by opening his own fish market, Cape Seafood and Provisions, where he takes the guesswork out of shopping for fish. “All of our fish is wild caught, sustainable, and we can tell people who caught it and where it was caught,” he explains. “You have to be steadfast and stick to your guns with vendors. No compromises. People expect that from us.”
Bringing quality, sustainability
The secret to doing that for an affordable price is volume. Cimarusti serves the same quality fish at both of his restaurants and his fish market, which not only lowers his costs but also gives him access to more of the tip-top quality portion of a catch he needs for Providence’s specialized menu. L.A. home cooks shopping at Cape Provisions have access to that same product, he says, including Morningstar’s seasonal Maine scallops and the wild, line-caught striped bass previously only available to the city’s chefs. Plus, Cimarusti’s fishmongers cook in his restaurants, lending serious food cred to the serving tips they share with shoppers. “It’s what separates us from other seafood markets,” he says.
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“We’ll be priced competitively,” he says. “But good fish is not cheap, and cheap fish is not good. Farm-raised fish is cheap. The methods used to bring that fish to market are questionable. People have to come to grips with the tremendous environmental costs behind cheap fish. And the taste? There is no comparison between farm and wild.”
Cimarusti is part of a movement among environmentally progressive chefs who are betting that a market-supported approach will rebuild threatened fishing grounds. Buying wild, sustainable, traceable fish, he says, supports the small-boat American fishermen dedicated to using managed fishing to bring back wild fish stocks and restore fish habitats. The higher price honors that investment and assures the economic viability of these small businesses.
In Providence’s hushed dining room, Cimarusti rarely discusses fish politics. The new market is his soapbox. Standing behind the fish counter, he explains to consumers how they can play an active role in restoring our ocean ecosystem. His message is simple: If you want to protect wild fish, you should eat wild fish.
Cape Seafoods is a double bottom-line business for Cimarusti, supporting both his restaurants and his values. The best part, he says, is the opportunity to share the stories of the fish he sells. “Consumers want answers,” he says. “It behooves us to supply them.”
Chef Michael Cimarusti, left, and Donato Poto, partners in Cape Seafood and Provisions, on opening day, March 23, 2016. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, a highly regarded institution, has been considered for many years a welcome watchdog over our seafood. Why? Simply because there is so much information, misinformation, myth and reality afloat that a poor consumer never knows which way to turn — or which fish to buy.
Enter the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Card (and for all you smartphone addicts, an accompanying app). Updated every month or so as new information comes along, the Seafood Watch Card lists “best choices,” “good alternatives” and “avoid,” colored appropriately green, yellow and red, for all the seafood you might be lucky enough to find at a fishmonger or restaurant near you.
And now, for the first time, as I recently learned, Maine-farmed salmon has been awarded a yellow sticker as a “good alternative,” meaning Monterey Bay has given its seal of approval to the way salmon is raised in Maine.
Maine has stringent environmental controls over salmon farming, most of which takes place way Down East from Machiasport to Cobscook Bay; all of Maine’s current salmon farms are operated by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian family firm with a long history in Maine and the Maritimes. (Cooke salmon is marketed under the True North label.) Whether in Canada or Maine, the company is required to follow strict environmental protocols. In Maine, that includes a particularly stringent “bay management system,” wherein the salmon are separated into year classes, each in separate pens and a separate bay from the others, making disease control much easier. Moreover, when a year class is harvested, the bay in which it was raised must spend a year in fallow, to allow the ocean bottom and surrounding water to recover. This system means a third of Maine’s 25 licensed fish farms are fallow in any given year.
Two other problems frequently raised about farmed salmon are the use of antibiotics and hormones, and the ratio of wild fish used to produce farmed fish, called “fish in/fish out.” Maine, like Canada, has stringent rules governing the use of medications such as antibiotics. Like most modern fish farmers, Maine farms control disease in fish through inoculation at the parr (juvenile) stage. And, like other responsible fish farmers, Cooke Aquaculture is constantly researching ways to cut back on the quantity of wild fish that are fed to its salmon, using, according to company literature, marine, plant and animal proteins and fats, grains, minerals and vitamins, as well as carotenoids. The current ratio is about 1.2 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of salmon flesh. Currently, a lot of the fish meal and fish oil in the feed for Maine salmon actually comes from byproducts of fish intended for human consumption. I should note, too, that Cooke’s feeding program is certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, an international overseer of aquaculture practices.
Here’s what Monterey Bay had to say about Maine-farmed salmon: “Effluent and habitat impacts are moderate and stringent operating permit mandates have resulted in superior fish containment. Also of note is the industry’s very low reliance on marine feed ingredients. The industry is limited by high concerns for chemical use. Sea lice levels are also high, but there is evidence that no on-farm diseases have been transmitted to wild fish.”
Salmon a nutritious and versatile choice
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The only problem now is where to find Maine salmon. Here in Maine, that’s not such a big deal, but elsewhere? Look for the True North label, and as with any quality food product, ask and ask and ask. If the answer brings a shrug and a bewildered look, keep asking. True North fish raised in Maine should be marked somewhere on the label. With such limited knowledge, it’s no wonder consumers are just as bewildered as fish mongers are, but persistence will pay off. Meanwhile, I’m making my voice heard, loud and clear, for Maine salmon. If it’s good enough for Monterey Bay, it’s good enough for me!
Apart from the fact that it’s enormously good for you, with plenty of those treasured Omega-3 fats, there’s another great thing about salmon: it’s so easy to prepare in dozens of tasty, interesting and easy ways. Dress a fillet with a little extra virgin, a few drops of lemon juice, and maybe a splash of soy or a smear of garlic paste, then run it under the broiler and cook to your taste until it’s a little browned on top. Or have the fillet skinned, then cut it in chunks, toss the chunks in olive oil in a skillet set over medium heat and serve with a side of home fries and a green salad. Any leftover salmon can be flaked and mixed, just like tuna from the can, with a little mayo, some chopped green onions, maybe a bit of chopped celery, capers and green olives, to make a delicious salad.
Or try this simple but elegant recipe for tataki salmon, which I discovered on a trip to Santiago de Chile, where it is popular as a first course. One pound of salmon makes plenty for 4, but if you want to serve it as a main, I’d count on 2 to 3 servings from a pound. Incidentally, this is also a good dish to prepare ahead, even by a couple of hours, but keep the prepared dishes in a cool place until ready to serve.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Total time: Less than 20 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings as a main course, or 4 to 6 as a starter
1 pound boneless Atlantic salmon, skinned, in one or two pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Half an avocado, cubed
Sprigs of cilantro
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- Pat the salmon fillet dry on both sides with paper towels, then sprinkle it liberally with ground black pepper.
- Using the flat blade of a knife, crush the minced ginger to a paste. Add it to a small bowl, along with the lime juice, sesame oil and soy sauce. Beat with a small whisk or a fork to make an amalgam.
- Set a heavy duty skillet on the stove over medium-high heat and heat it until it is very hot. Have the salmon ready, but first add the olive oil, roll it around the skillet to cover completely, then immediately add the salmon fillet. The oil may start to smoke before you add the salmon, but not to worry. The hotter the oil, the less likely it is the salmon will stick to the pan.
- Sear the salmon for about 45 seconds, then carefully turn it over and sear the other side, searing again for 45 seconds. It should be browning on the outside but still quite raw in the middle.
- Remove the salmon to a plate and set aside to cool down. If you try to cut the salmon when it’s very hot, it will fall apart.
- When the salmon is sufficiently cool, cut it in bite-size cubes and arrange on plates. Whisk up the dressing again and spoon it over the salmon cubes. Garnish with avocado, cilantro and sesame seeds and serve.
Note: It’s important to heat the skillet to very hot before adding the oil and then, immediately after, the salmon; if the skillet is not hot, the salmon will stick to the pan.
Main photo: A salmon leaping in a cage. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture
For as long as I can remember, I’ve encouraged cooking students, friends and fellow diners to opt for squid over octopus. In return they usually say they have never tried it or they like deep-fried octopus too much to give up “calamari.” Besides, does anyone really know what to do with that freakish, tentacle-waving thing?
It turns out quite a few people and cultures know how to prepare squid. Japanese cooks slice it and serve it raw with grated ginger and soy sauce, or they batter it, deep-fry it and offer it as tempura. In Southeast Asia, chefs add it to curries and stir-fries, while in the Mediterranean they may stew, stuff, grill or fry it.
As for that beloved, deep-fried appetizer calamari, it’s not octopus that diners dunk into bowls of tomato, cocktail or tartar sauce. Whether calamar in Spanish, calamaro in Italian or calamari on restaurant menus, the name refers to the same thing: squid.
The cephalopod family
I can understand the confusion surrounding squid and octopus. Both are cephalopods from the mollusk family, a family that also includes clams, snails, cuttlefish and abalone. Both possess eight sucker-lined arms, three hearts, two eyes and a large head. Both have been dubbed head-footed, meaning their heads attach, loosely speaking, to their feet. Saltwater creatures, both live in tropical to temperate zones and propel themselves by sucking in and pushing out water.
While they do have many physical similarities, the two differ in one crucial aspect. Generally, squid possesses a better sustainability ranking than octopus.
Squid fisheries, particularly those dedicated to the longfin species, tend to be well managed. They track and restrict commercial landings and monitor habitat damage and bycatch. The fisheries also have the squid’s prolific reproduction and rapid growth rates in their favor; these traits make squid less susceptible to overfishing. Meanwhile, octopus fisheries are notorious for exploiting populations, harming habitats and hauling in large amounts of bycatch.
Sustainability and versatility are why I choose squid. Along with being fried, stewed or grilled, squid does well when braised, broiled, roasted, sautéed, steamed or served raw in sashimi or ceviche. Octopus, on the other hand, performs best with three techniques: braising, stewing or grilling.
With squid you can eat everything — eight arms, two tentacles, head, ink — but its beak, eyes and thin, hard, transparent interior bone. These should be removed and discarded before cooking.
The cigar-shaped head can be stuffed and cooked whole or sliced into strips, flat pieces or rings. Depending upon their length, the arms and tentacles can be cooked whole or halved and then cooked.
Squid’s sweetly salty, black ink, which it uses for defense, remains a prized flavoring. You can add it to homemade pasta dough for a touch of color and taste, incorporate it into a sauce, simmer it in rice dish or dress other seafood with it. Spaniards pair the ink with white rice, garlic, green peppers and squid or its close relation cuttlefish for the paella-like specialty arròs negre. In Italy, squid and ink partner with risotto, white wine, shallots, parmesan, parsley and shrimp for riso el al nero di seppia.
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Squid goes especially well with such ingredients as celery, garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, onion, scallions, shallot, peppers, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, walnuts, pasta, rice, polenta, couscous, fish and shellfish. Its mild flavor complements bay leaf, cilantro, honey, marjoram, mayonnaise, olive oil, parsley, ground pepper, saffron, sesame, soy sauce, thyme, vinegar and white wine.
Shopping for squid couldn’t be easier. Select fresh, slightly sweet-smelling squid with bright eyes and, if its been cleaned, a glistening, white body. If your fishmonger hasn’t cleaned it, the squid will have a purplish-brown membrane over it.
Of the species sold in markets, longfin is preferable. Along with being environmentally sound, it has fine, tender flesh and a delicate flavor. The same holds true for young or small squid, which can be as little as 1 inch long.
The majority of squid grow no larger than 2 feet long, but giant squid can reach up to 40 feet. Bigger squid are tougher in texture and should be used for stuffing, stewing or braising.
In all likelihood, what you purchase at your local market will have arrived there frozen and been defrosted before being put on display. If you purchase frozen squid, you should place it in a bowl on ice in your refrigerator and allow it to defrost overnight. Use it within one day of buying or defrosting.
The next time that you’re out for dinner or shopping at your local market, go for the more sustainable and adaptable seafood choice. Skip the octopus and ask for squid instead.
Salt ‘n’ Pink Pepper Squid
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)
To boost the flavor of this simple but delicious dish, set out a small bowl of hot sauce for dipping.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 4 minutes
Total time: 9 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon pink or red peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound cleaned squid
Sesame oil, for dressing
Hot sauce for serving (optional)
1. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the salt and peppercorns together so you have a rough mixture of the two.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high.
3. Using a knife, score one side of the squid sections in a crisscross pattern. Cut the squid into four equal, bite-sized sections; if you have small squid, just cut them in half. Season the squid on both sides with the salt-and-pepper mixture. Shake off any excess coating and place the squid in the pan.
4. Cook until the pieces start to curl up on the edges or bulge in the center, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over and cook on the other side until it also curls, about 1 minute. Remove and place the squid on a platter. Drizzle sesame oil to taste over the squid. Serve immediately.
Main image: Squid stir-fry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
There’s a phrase Mainers use when they really, really like something: “Wicked good,” they say. Right now they’re saying that about Maine sea scallops, harvested from the cold, clean waters in the state’s deep bays and around its widely scattered islands.
These are scallops from day-boat fishermen, who forage only inshore (within 3 miles of shore), leaving port before dawn and returning in the early afternoon with their 10- to 15-gallon allotment of fresh-shucked scallops. (A gallon of scallops weighs about 9 pounds.)
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The season for these beauties just opened, and, with luck and a little help from Mother Nature, it will last through the winter, providing sweetly succulent seafood with a flavor and texture that put scallops high on a gourmet’s pinnacle. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply and the catch is tightly regulated. Maine sea scallops represent just about 1% to 1.5% of all the scallops consumed in the U.S. each year. Back in the 1980s, Maine fishermen harvested 4 million pounds of scallops annually, but that figure declined to an all-time low of just 33,000 pounds 10 years ago. Now, thanks to a combination of efforts from fishermen, along with the Penobscot East Resource Center, a prominent fisheries NGO, as well as the state’s Department of Marine Resources, the scallop population is being restored to sustainable levels, and a project is underway to give Maine sea scallops the same cachet as Maine lobster, a recognizable and sought-after treat for a festive winter table.
What makes Maine sea scallops so desirable is both their texture and flavor. That requires a brief lesson in physiology. The part of the scallop we consume is the adductor muscle, which connects the two shells of this bivalve. Most bivalves — clams, mussels and the like — are immobile, sitting in one place throughout their entire life cycle, patiently waiting for food to float by. But scallops are unusual in that they actually swim, clapping their shells together to propel themselves away from predators as their adductor muscle grows into a meaty chunk, as tender and tasty as filet mignon. As for the flavor, Maine sea scallops have a distinctive sweet nuttiness that experts say comes from the cold salt waters in which they thrive. Unlike scallops from other areas, they are as tasty raw as they are seared in a skillet or baked in a sea pie.
Moreover, because this is entirely a day-boat catch, the scallops arrive in port within hours of harvest and are usually shipped out within a short time frame, as fresh as a Maine morning. Deep sea scallop fishermen pack their catch in ice and frequently also in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate. Scallops are like little sponges, absorbing moisture and, of course, increasing in weight. These deep sea scallops are sold — or they should be sold — as “wet” scallops, and they are to be avoided. If you try to sear off “wet”scallops, they exude a milky liquid into the frying pan and will never brown properly. Consumer alert: Even if you can’t find Maine sea scallops, you should only buy “dry” scallops, which have not had anything added to them.
Once you have the best-quality scallops in your kitchen, you should use them quickly, within a day or two. In Maine we often freeze scallops in order to prolong the season, but otherwise, we eat them raw (a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of chopped green jalapeño and a little fresh cilantro will give them a delightful Mexican touch) or we cook them up in a variety of simple ways. Here is one, adapted from my “New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”
But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:
- Be sure you get dry scallops.
- Remove and discard the thick, opaque bit attached like a strap to the side of the muscle — it’s tough.
- Dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels before you start to cook.
- Don’t crowd the scallops when you sear them — they need plenty of room to brown perfectly.
Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finally chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and slivered
4 to 6 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped (1 ½ cups)
1 tablespoon mild Spanish or Hungarian paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 pounds “dry” Maine sea scallops
1/4 to 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra, for example)
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 to 3/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs
- In a deep skillet, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the onion and garlic and set over medium-low heat. As the vegetables start to sizzle and soften, lower the heat and stir in the pepper slivers.
- Stir to mix well and let cook until the pepper slivers are soft, then stir in the tomatoes, paprika, salt and pepper and let cook 4 to 5 minutes longer. If the vegetables start to stick to the pan, add a couple of tablespoons of wine to loosen them.
- When the vegetables are done and have reduced to a thick sauce, set aside. (These steps can be done well ahead.)
- When you’re ready to continue with the recipe, lay the scallops out on paper towels and pat dry on both surfaces. Turn on the broiler.
- Sprinkle the flour on a plate.
- Smear about half a tablespoon of oil over the bottom of a gratin dish or another type of shallow baking dish.
- Add 3 tablespoons of oil to another skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is very hot, dip each scallop in the flour, dusting both sides lightly, then add to the hot oil. Sear on both sides until golden-brown, turning with tongs — about 2 minutes to a side.
- As the scallops finish cooking, remove each one to the oiled baking dish. (You may need to add more oil to the skillet before you finish with all the scallops.) Ideally you will cover the bottom of the dish with a single layer of scallops.
- When all the scallops are done, add 1/2 cup wine to the skillet and boil rapidly, scraping up any brown bits, then stir the tomato-pepper mixture into the wine and cook briefly, stirring to mix well.
- Spoon the hot sauce over the tops of the scallops, then top the sauce with a combination of chopped parsley and bread crumbs. Dribble a thread of olive oil over the top, using about 2 tablespoons of oil, no more.
- Transfer the dish to the broiler, keeping it 3 to 4 inches from the source of heat, and broil until the top is lightly browned and sizzling, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Remove and serve immediately.
Where to find Maine sea scallops
You can get Maine sea scallops, fresh or frozen, from the following locations. Note that prices vary depending on the harvest.
- Stonington Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Flash-frozen fresh. 207-348-2730.
- Downeast Dayboat Scallops: Fresh scallops. 207-838-1490.
- Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Port Clyde, Maine: Fresh and frozen. 207-372-1059.
- Ingrid Bengis Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Supplies chefs and restaurants only (for example, French Laundry, Blue Hill Stone Barns, et al.), not private customers, with fresh diver scallops. 207-367-2416.
Main image: Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Stockholm. As newlyweds we were deliriously happy, but as grad students we were broke. Our best entertainment consisted of visiting the city’s beautiful food hall, where we longingly eyed all the seafood we couldn’t afford. After a while, a kindly fishmonger named Tommy Henriksson took pity on us and introduced us to some local fish within our budget. Tommy taught us to make magic with fresh herring and cod — fish so inexpensive they were taken for granted. We learned how to pan-fry herring and to sear cod in a blazing hot cast-iron skillet with plenty of salt. It cooked up into beautiful, moist flakes.
But times have changed, and we can no longer take cod for granted. By 1994, the once-bounteous stock of cod in Georges Bank, a continental shelf off the coast of New England, had been depleted from overfishing. And although strict quotas were put into place, these protective measures came too late. Our native fish stocks still haven’t recovered.
The world’s largest population of native cod now swims in the Barents Sea, which washes the far northern coasts of Norway and Russia.
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These cod are called skrei, from an Old Norse word meaning “to wander.” And wander they do. The skrei live for five years in the Barents’ nutrient-rich waters, where they acquire exceptional flavor. They then migrate to spawn in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway’s northern coast.
Until the 1980s, when wet-fish and factory trawlers began to proliferate, small-boat fishing was the islanders’ lifeblood. They lived by the annual rhythms of the fisheries and revered all parts of the cod. By simmering the cod with its liver, roe and a little whey, they made a traditional one-pot meal called mølje. Besides adding depth of flavor, the liver’s high content of vitamin D kept people healthy during the dark, sun-starved winters.
The importance of cod
By Darra Goldstein
Ten Speed Press, 2015
Cod’s importance to the North dates from the earliest recorded times, both for its nutritional and commercial values. The Vikings were trading dried skrei by the 10th century. Today, the fish continues to be dried in various traditional ways, two of which are recognized by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an international effort to identify and catalog unique regional food items.
For tørrfisk (stockfish), the cod is line-caught, then quickly gutted and beheaded before being brought to shore. Two fish of similar size are bound together by their tails and draped on wooden racks to dry for two or three months in the salt air. Klippfisk (salt cod) is prepared farther south on Norway’s coast where large, flat rocks rise at the edge of the sea. The rocks are cleaned and spread with salt before split cod is laid out on them to dry into a delicacy that is less hard and brittle than tørrfisk. My personal favorite is boknafisk, cod that has been only partially dried in the salt air. When poached, its texture turns silken.
Population is threatened
The Barents fisheries have been generally well regulated. Norwegians recognize that a healthy population of cod also means rich populations of valuable groundfish like haddock and pollock. But this piscatorial treasure is now threatened. In 2010, after years of negotiation, Norway and Russia ratified the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean Maritime Delimitation Treaty, which opened the waters to commercial interests.
The sea contains rich oil and natural gas deposits, and corporations on both sides of the border are eager to begin exploiting them. And although Norway is highly sensitive to environmental concerns, Russia is not. Pressure is increasing to drill for oil and gas in one of the last truly pristine places on earth.
Preservation is vital
Undamaged ecosystems are essential for fish to thrive. Unless carefully regulated, the oil and gas extraction industries will deplete the Barents Sea’s resources and then move on, leaving behind oil boom debris and polluted seabeds. The World Wildlife Fund expressed concern as far back as 2004, well before the international treaty was signed, over the potential loss of the Barents Sea habitat to overfishing and industrial development.
Because of the decline in the annual catch, the Lofotens are already less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Rows of wooden drying racks now stand empty on some island beaches, like so many looming sculptures memorializing a once-crucial livelihood and tradition. Cod encapsulates the collective history of the Barents region and the Lofoten Islands. It is vital that we preserve the last healthy population of wild cod and protect these waters that nourish not only the body but the soul.
Main photo: Cod are hung out to dry in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
It began at 3 a.m., a bursting, loud, rumbling noise that broke the rural silence and my sleep. It came and went continuously. I couldn’t take it anymore and got up to investigate.
I was staying at a Japanese resort hotel next to Lake Saroma on the northeastern coast of the island of Hokkaido. Little did I know that the jarring racket in this usually quiet town would lead me to discover one of the most memorable meals of my trip and one of the area’s most lucrative food industries: scallop farming.
Scallop farming starts with a perfect lake
Lake Saroma, the third largest lake in Japan, is adjacent to the Sea of Okhotsk, separated from the sea by a narrow sand spit. It was once a freshwater lake. Every year in April and May, snow melt from the mountains gushed into the 13 rivers that empty into the lake and flooded the area. Aside from destroying homes and villages, it also ruined the livelihood of the fishermen. To prevent future floods, locals dug out a bit of the sand strip to create a channel.
The narrow passage not only let the freshwater out to ease flooding, it also allowed seawater to come in, especially during high tide, leaving much of the lake brackish.
The passage frequently closed because of moving sand during winter storms, and locals worked to reopen the channel every year. People soon discovered other advantages to keeping the passage open.
New fish come to the lake and scallops, too
Fishermen could now easily catch salmon, herring and ocean trout that swam into the lake. Scallops and oysters that thrive in brackish water also found a home. In the 1950s, Japan studied the idea of introducing scallop farming at the lake, and it has been very successful. Today the lake has two permanent, man-made concrete passages to the sea.
When I checked into the hotel the day before, I found a pair of binoculars in the room and admired the calm, silent lake and the sea beyond. The next morning I rubbed my drowsy eyes and tried to reconcile two very different experiences: the prior day’s calm with the early morning noise. Soon I saw the source of the racket: boats moving at high speed on the lake. I noticed that the boats raced out, stopped for a while and then raced back to shore. They looked as if they were competing. I quickly dressed and went to the reception desk to find out what was happening. “They are scallop farmers at Sakaeura Fishery,” I was told. Without having breakfast, I dashed to the fishing port about a mile from the hotel to get a firsthand look at the operation.
Fishermen work day and night bringing in scallops
Fishing boats were still coming in and leaving the port every few minutes. I approached a senior fisherman, Kuniyoshi Ooi, who seemed to be overseeing the operation. He told me that 90 fishermen in this port are licensed to farm scallops. Each fisherman has his own boat, and each employs an average of 10 part-time workers — students from a nearby university — at this busy time of the year. Students are attracted by the good pay, $25 dollars an hour for work from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., Ooi said. The workers, dressed in bright colored uniforms, work as if part of a conveyor belt operation inside a long shed, extending several hundred feet along the quay.
Baby scallops are retrieved from the sacks
Scallop farming in Lake Saroma is a sustainable, environmentally friendly business. The first year of scallop culture begins in May when the fishermen drop a rope with a knitted sack to collect natural scallop larvae in the lake. Scallop larvae in nature affix themselves to the grass in water. In farming, it’s different. The larvae attach to the ropes lowered by the fishermen.
In August, fishermen remove the ropes with larvae from the water, transfer them to a larger, roughly knitted square sack and drop it into the water again. By the following May, the scallops in the sack have grown to about 2 inches. The boats retrieve the sacks, 200 at a time, with 1-year old scallops, called chigai.
Mostly students work on the scallop harvest
It was the roar of the boats engaged in this process that woke me from my deep sleep. The part-time workers removed the scallops from each sack, cleaned and sorted them, and transferred them into large, blue plastic bins. After unloading the sacks for processing at the dock, the boat again sped back onto the lake to fetch more.
No words were exchanged among the workers; each silently and rapidly did his job — on the boat, on the pier and in the shed. Neither did anyone show any interest in the visitor watching them and snapping iPhone photos so early in the morning. I learned that the year-old scallops are then transported through the channels to the sea and remain there to mature for 3 years before being harvested and sent to market.
Scallops go back to the sea for three more years
According to Ooi, the scallop harvest from the lake is about 44,000 tons each year. Fresh, frozen and dried scallops from this port not only satisfy the market in Japan but are exported to China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the United States. The 90 fisherman are part of a cooperative that provides for all of their needs, including food and housing allowances, funds for boat upkeep and crews, and generous retirement benefits. Ooi said last year’s profit from the scallop harvest, after all expenses, was more than $250,000 for each member of the co-operative. Not a bad catch; these fishermen are not poor.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
In addition to their sustainable scallop farming operation, the Tokoro Fishery Association, of which the Sakaerura Fishery is a part, helps maintain the health of the local environment. In the past, cutting trees for opening the nearby land upstream from the lake for commercial development created problems at the fishery. Eroded sand and soil entered the lake and suffocated the fish. And the chemical contamination from the developed land degraded the water quality, which also affected the fishery.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
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The next day on my way north to Wakkanai, the northernmost city of Hokkaido, I stopped at a roadside restaurant to sample the “scallop ramen.” As I devoured the delicious dish, vivid memories of my early morning visit to the fishing port flashed back to my mind. No scallops ever tasted better than the ones in my ramen.
Main photo: The memorable scallop ramen at the roadside restaurant found on the way north from Lake Saroma to Wakkanai. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.
The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.
The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide to oysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.
Where to find oysters
You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?
“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.
Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.
Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.
Gather the gear
If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.
Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.
Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.
A note on mignonettes
A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.
Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.
And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.
Find the right wine
If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.
“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.
Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.
The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noir from a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.
Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.
Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”
The art of the shuck
So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.
2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.
3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.
4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.
5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.
That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.
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Classic Mignonette Sauce
–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1 tablespoon course ground black pepper
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 cup sparkling wine
Salt to taste
Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.
— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons yuzukoshō (Japanese fermented chili-citrus paste, available at Asian grocers)
2 tablespoons finely diced daikon radish
Combine all ingredients in a quart jar and just before serving shake well to emulsify; keeps well in the refrigerator for two weeks to a month.
Main photo: Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock
At a time when sea stocks are widely under threat, savvy chefs are turning their attention to the gourmet potential offered by freshwater fish. And when the catch is from Lake Garda in this glorious region in the north of Italy, where the scent of Mediterranean citrus meets sweet Alpine meadows, it gives the food-loving traveler even more reason to visit a place whose classical beauty captivated German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe among many others.
Popular holiday destination
Garda has long been a popular holiday destination for both the families of Verona, many of whom have elegant holiday villas strung out along the shore, and for northern Europeans coming south to seek tranquility in the sun, crystal clear air, and bracing mountain and water pursuits.
It’s a heady, romantic destination with a Grand European Tour history although today’s visitors are less likely to be found sedately sketching castle ruins and more likely to be jogging, playing golf at world-class courses, paragliding, diving, sailing or simply having a zen moment on the shore of Italy’s largest lake.
Fishing on Lake Garda
For centuries, fishing was one of the mainstays of Gardenese life. From a peak of 700 fishermen earning their living from the lake in the 19th century, there are now only about 120. Although fish stocks are plentiful, some diners still need to be persuaded to try an alternative to the variety of fish that arrive from the nearby Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Some small-scale fish farming also occurs: in the Trentino foothills of the Dolomites, the family-run Trota Oro farms trout, char and chub, which they also sell smoked and marinated.
Fish & Chef is an annual gastronomic festival of cookery shows and gourmet meals held in the early summer and designed to highlight the produce of the region. Michelin-starred hotels and restaurants participate in friendly competition and tickets to the gala dinners are quickly snapped up by enthusiastic locals and visitors alike.
It’s a recognition that increasingly, chefs from both Garda and the rest of Italy and Europe are exploring the exciting possibilities of cooking with environmentally friendly freshwater fish such as rainbow trout, pike, carp, perch, bleak, tench, char and freshwater sardines. If lucky, you may find some rare brown trout, although the fishing is subject to tight restrictions.
Fish & Chef competition
At this year’s festival, the sixth, Chef Marco Sacco of the two Michelin-star restaurant Piccolo Lago in Verbena created a stunning arrangement of sushi for the Fish & Chef gala dinner held at the lovely Hotel Regina Adelaide hotel in Garda. And at the Aqualux Hotel, Bardolino, pale, lean chub took a star turn served three ways with cucumber, watercress and crème fraiche at a dinner cooked by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star Restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany.
On a more quotidian level, nearly every trattoria and osteria serves a version of bigoli con sarde — rough-edged, soft wheat pasta with a sauce based on freshwater sardines preserved in oil.
Everyman’s version of bigoli con sarde
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Ironically — and sadly — the most iconic product of Lake Garda no longer exists. Garda lemons were once famous throughout Europe for their alleged medicinal properties, acidity, thin skin, intense perfume and flavor, but the variety was lost when the last trees failed to survive a particularly cold winter in the 1980s. Even before then the writing was on the wall for the most northerly growing citrus region in Europe, an improbable industry created by a determination that has been called “a dogged madness.”
Lemons were brought to Garda by monks in the 13th century. They grew well in the Mediterranean-style microclimate and in the 17th century the construction of vast lemon houses or “limonaia” made this the most northern commercial lemon-growing region in Europe. The towering, terraced structures of wooden beams, stone pillars and glass sheets were designed to protect the fruit from winter frosts. Disease, competition from the south, some exceptionally cold weather and the discovery of synthetic citric acid, however, would later destroy the industry.
Lemons of Garda
The original variety of Garda lemon is also virtually extinct, grown only by a few private citrus enthusiasts. Most of the lemons sold in the region come from Sicily and southern Italy or are a modern hybrid, but the tradition of using lemons in conserves and limoncello lives on.
Thanks to the mild microclimate, Lake Garda is also the most northerly region in Europe to produce olive oil. The extra virgin is characteristically delicate and fruity, and is protected by the Garda DOP mark. “Molche,” the residue from olives after they have been pressed, is traditionally used in bread and cakes.
Olive oil cake
One of the stellar olive oil labels in Garda, indeed in Italy, is the boutique olive oil farm of Ca’ Rainene. The award-winning range includes Garda Orientale, extracted from a blend of indigenous olives — Casaliva, Lecino and Pendolino — grown and pressed on their own land. Medium fruity, with perfectly balanced bitter and pungent components, it has a delicate almond note typical of the Garda cultivars. The farm also produces Drizzar, made solely with olives of that name: Fruity and complex, it is superb with fish, game and vegetables.
The hills north of Verona are the land of Valpolicella, but closer to Garda the classic wine to look out for is Custoza, a full-bodied white wine usually drunk young but that is starting to be appreciated when a little older. Bardolino is a light red wine and Chiaretto, the rosé version. There are 80 types of soil in the region that make for extremely “fresh” wines, perfect as an aperitif or to drink with fish.
The last word should go to Goethe: ” … I wish I could get my friends beside me to enjoy together the scenery that appears before me … the beautiful Lake Garda. …”
I’ll raise a glass of Custoza to that while I work out the Italian for “Gone fishing.”
The shores of Lake Garda
Main photo: For a Fish and Chef gala at the Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino, Italy, Chub cooked three ways, with cucumber, watercress and creme fraiche, as served by Dirk Hoberg of the two Michelin-star restaurant Ophelia on Lake Constance, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman