Articles in Aquaculture
I’m a Trader Joe’s groupie. So I was thrilled when my Hawaiian-shirt-clad friends announced that they would be purchasing all their seafood from sustainable sources by the end of 2012. The Monrovia, Calif.,-based retailer had been a target of a Greenpeace “Traitor Joe’s” campaign for its ocean-unfriendly policies, including the sale of a variety of endangered fish. With that pledge, Trader Joe’s joined the good guys.
But four months past the deadline, my glee has changed to frustration over Trader Joe’s unwillingness to say whether it has indeed gone sustainable. The retailer’s only statement on the subject, a customer update posted on its website March 27, does not address the deadline at all. Instead it lays out a number of steps it has taken in “support of our seafood goal of shifting to sustainable sources.”
Trader Joe’s says it will do the following: Stop selling swordfish caught in Southeast Asia, only sell canned yellowfin and albacore tuna caught using approved sustainable methods, set up new standards for suppliers of farmed shrimp and keep genetically engineered salmon off its shelves. The store has also stopped selling endangered Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper. Those are all steps in the right direction.
Trader Joe’s mum on meeting deadline
But can I go to Trader Joe’s today and pick up fish fillets for dinner without worrying about whether I am contributing to the degradation of the ocean?
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Why the mystery? Everyone understands a missed deadline, particularly when it involves something as complex as seafood sustainability, global supply chains and the economics of food. But refusing to discuss the matter makes it look like Trader Joe’s is hiding something.
Casson Trenor, a senior seafood campaigner at Greenpeace, acknowledges Trader Joe’s is making “tremendous progress” toward saving the oceans. But he says the company’s reluctance to provide more information about its seafood sourcing policies has made it nearly impossible to determine whether the retailer is actually living up to its promises.
For example, he says the store is still selling items such as farmed salmon and dredged scallops that Greenpeace and other groups do not consider sustainable. Are they simply clearing out old inventory? Or are they flouting their own goals and hoping others won’t notice?
There are a lot of things to love about Trader Joe’s if you’re a foodie on a budget, a time-strapped cook (who knew broccoli slaw could taste so good?) or an aficionado of cheap wine. But unfortunately, transparency isn’t one of them. Trenor explains that a key part of Trader Joe’s success is its ability to create tasty, easy-to-use foods — such as spicy fish fillets — that aren’t available anywhere else. To prevent those products from being copied, the retailer has resisted pressure to reveal its sourcing or its suppliers.
“Trader Joe’s is all about magic and illusion,” Trenor says. “It delivers an experience that it doesn’t have to compete for because no one else can produce that product. Why would it give itself away?”
Verifying the sustainability of a seafood product requires two key pieces of information: where it was caught or farmed and how it was caught or farmed, explains Victoria Galitzine of FishWise, a Santa Cruz, Calif., organization working with the seafood industry to develop sustainable business practices. As a first step, she recommends checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has an app and pocket-sized cards with lists of ocean-friendly seafood and fish to avoid.
Trader Joe’s says it is in the process of enhancing its package labeling to include information on species’ Latin names; origin; and catch or production method. But until that happens, I will need to ask my friendly sales clerk whether that frozen yellowfin tuna from Fiji was caught using a long-line or purse seine equipped with a “fish aggregating device, or FAD.” If the answer is yes to the FAD, it’s on the red list and off my grill.
“Asking questions demonstrates to the retailers that its customers care about the environmental performance of its seafood and eventually those messages will trickle up the chain of command to the decision-makers who can affect significant change,” Galitzine says.
I can also support retailers who are clearly ocean-friendly. In mid-May, Greenpeace will publish its annual Seafood Sustainability Scorecard ranking grocery stores by their sustainable seafood practices. Last year, the top scores went to Safeway and Whole Foods while Trader Joe’s ranked 15 out of 20.
Trenor wouldn’t say whether Trader Joe’s will be getting a better grade this year. However, if Greenpeace finds a large gap between Trader Joe’s promises and its delivery, he is not ruling out a revival of its “Traitor Joe’s” campaign.
“Trader Joe’s did make a promise to Greenpeace and other groups and that’s why we suspended our campaign,” he says. “The time is up. The question now is did they actually do what they said they were going to do?”
Top photo: A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe’s store. Credit: Greenpeace
Anyone who’s ever traveled in the Swiss Alps will know that farming there is nothing new. Wherever you go, you will see doe-eyed, moleskin-brown cows grazing vertiginous, brilliant green, manicured hillsides, their fragrant milk destined for great wheels of hard mountain cheese. But fish farming? It sounds unlikely — a bit like salmon farming in the Yemen — but it’s true.
The story began with the Lötschberg rail tunnel, which enters the Alps at Frutigen in the heart of the Bernese Oberland and emerges the other side at Raron in the Valais.
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The tunnel is the latest example of the Swiss flair for engineering. As often happens when tunneling in the Alps, the project hit a few snags. Chief among these was the water runoff from rain and melting snow, which filters through the limestone layers to the tunnel below. Thanks to the geothermal effect, the water is warmed on its descent through the mountain to a rather comfortable 64 F. To channel it directly into the local river would have played havoc with the wild fish population, accustomed to an icy alpine torrent.
The solution came from engineer Peter Hufschmied, head of site management for the tunnel and a keen angler. Instead of expending energy in cooling down the water before allowing it to run off, why not take advantage of the warmth to raise fish? Simultaneously, they would use any surplus energy to heat greenhouses where tropical plants and fruits would grow. A perfect – and perfectly sustainable — solution.
The Tropenhaus in Frutigen was born, a pilot project was put in place in 2002, and by 2005 the first sturgeon were introduced. The original Swiss caviar, christened Oona (a word with Celtic roots suggesting “unique” or “extraordinary”), was harvested in the winter of 2011-12. Now leading Swiss chefs such as Heiko Nieder at the Dolder Grand in Zürich, Werner Rothen of Restaurant Schöngrün at the Paul Klee Centre in Bern, and Ivo Adam of Restaurant Seven in Ascona on Lake Maggiore can’t get enough of it.
At least 27 different sturgeon species are raised or fished for caviar. From these, the Tropenhaus chose the Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser baerii. It’s a strange and wonderful beast, light gray to brown in color with five rows of bony plates along its back and sides; an elongated, upturned snout; and a kind of four-pronged goatee beard. In captivity, the females of the species will mature at approximately 6 years of age, which makes them an economic proposition for farming. (Wild Siberian sturgeon needs at least 20 years to reach maturity.)
Once mature, the females are stunned and killed, the sac of roe is lifted out and set aside and the fish is deftly filleted. The fillets — firm, dense and devoid of bones — feature on the menus of the two on-site Tropenhaus restaurants and are also sold to restaurants and shops (including select branches of the Swiss retailer Coop, which is also the Tropenhaus’ main shareholder). Some fillets are sold fresh, others are smoked to create a delicacy not unlike smoked eel.
Harvesting roe for caviar a simple process
Considering the mystique surrounding caviar, the process for making it seems simple, at least as demonstrated by caviar-meister Tobias Felix. Clad in a hairnet, overalls, a plastic apron and white boots and equipped with surgical mask and latex gloves, he looks like a cross between an astronaut and a surgeon.
First, taking care not to damage the precious eggs, he gently coaxes and massages them through a wire mesh, leaving behind the membrane that surrounds them. Next, he rinses the eggs in cold water, drains them in a fine-meshed sieve and painstakingly picks out impurities with tweezers. At this stage, the eggs are a dull grayish-black; only when he adds the carefully calculated measure of salt will they take on their characteristic glossy sheen. The newly salted caviar is promptly transferred into custom-made tins, which are sealed hermetically. The entire process takes 15 minutes from start to finish.
For the final step, the tin is embedded in a sleek, black sphere, which in turn is enclosed in a solid chunk of glass resembling an ice cube, made at the Hergiswil glass factory on Lace Lucerne, an ultra-chic piece of packaging that won a coveted Red Dot Design award in 2012.
The likelihood of Swiss caviar coming to a table anywhere near you is probably slim. “The quantities are tiny (production in the first year was around 300 kilograms, 700 pounds) and for the moment we are focusing just on Switzerland,” admits marketing manager Andreas Schmid. But there are ambitious plans afoot: Production is set to increase tenfold, and then they will consider the export market.
Even farmed, Swiss caviar will never be cheap; that’s at least part of its mystique. (Thirty grams or 1 ounce of Oona costs 144 Swiss francs, or $155 U.S.) But now that caviar from wild fish is out of bounds due to a disastrous combination of damming, overfishing, pollution and poaching, farmed caviar is increasingly meeting demand for this prized product. Sturgeon is already raised on fish farms all over the world, from France, Spain and Italy to Russia, China, Canada and the United States.
Now Switzerland has joined the ranks.
Top photo: A spoonful of Oona caviar. Credit: Tropenhaus Frutigen
Where do chefs eat? As culinary professionals have become celebrities, their favorite haunts have attracted more attention. Want to know where Ludo Lefebvre gets his favorite pancakes? Or where to find the best sushi, according to Danny Bowein (of Mission Chinese fame)? ChefsFeed has the answers, and a bit more. With thousands of high-end to hole-in-the-wall restaurant recommendations straight from the mouths of the country’s best chefs, you’ll learn where they love to go, and most important, what they like to order. There are currently 20 different cities on the app, with at least 20 chefs per city. The app is very user-friendly, with a little smiling face (usually) of the chef and photos of his or her recommended dishes. You can click on the dish and get details about the restaurant and also why the chef likes it. This has got to be one of the best ways to hunt down a meal. The icon is pretty cool, too.
Available for free on iTunes
Split the bill without pain
No, Splitsville is not an app that will supply you with text-message breakup lines. Rather, it is an app that will help you split a restaurant bill. Sure, when there’s just two of you it’s easy — excuse yourself to the restroom and hope the other person pays. But what to do if you have an odd number of people dining? Simply open up this little bad boy, enter the total amount (plus tip, of course) then enter the number of diners, and the app will do the rest. Of course, so will a calculator. Here’s the difference: If you arrived only in time for dessert whilst your friends feasted on steak and lobster, you will not have to pay for their surf and turf gluttony. Specify that your crème brûlée only cost you $15 and the app will adjust accordingly, charging your friends for their share while you pay for what you had. Never again will you feel cheated by a tab because your buddy ordered one more beer than you. It will be accounted for, and it will be fair — Splitsville will make sure of it.
Available for free on iTunes
Find sustainable fish choices
Seafood Watch has changed the way I buy fish. I refer to it for “ocean-friendly” advice every time I go out to buy seafood, especially at stores where I don’t have a friendly fishmonger to chat with. A bit of an admission as well: I sometimes purchase frozen seafood at Costco, and this app has kept me from many a fish-buying mistake. Made by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the app brings you the most current recommendations for sustainable seafood and sushi, along with complete information about how each species should be fished or farmed. It is very simple to use and categorizes seafood as “best choice,” “good alternative” or “avoid,” with alternative options in the “avoid” section. When you delve into the app, you’ll notice the wealth of information available — everything from farming practices to where you can find a particular type of fish nearby. The sushi guide goes a bit further by providing the Japanese name as well as the English. This is an app worth downloading. All the information provided can also be found at www.seafoodwatch.org.
Available on iTunes and for Android for free
Drink wine by a biodynamic calendar
There is a growing opinion within the wine industry that wines taste better on certain days of the biodynamic calendar. Basically, with biodynamics, everything is dictated by the moon. The most common theory is, if the moon’s gravitational pull influences the ocean’s tide, it must also affect water in the soil and even sap within plants, which in turn can affect growth and flavor. There is a specific type of day depending on what phase the moon is in, they are: fruit, flower, leaf or root. For wine the best days to drink (and in fact transfer from tank to barrel) are said to be fruit and flower days. These days were originally used as guide for planting and sowing crops, but have more recently been extended into the wine world. Only a few blessed souls, however, have the ability to look at the moon and know what type of day it is. For the rest of us, there are two apps. BioGarden is a very cute biodynamic calendar app with little cartoon fruits and vegetables that tell you what type of day it is. You can scroll along from side to side quite easily and plan your biodynamic (drinking) calendar months in advance. When Wine Tastes Best is based off the biodynamic booklet of the same name. This is much more detailed, and actually tells you on the hour when the day type changes. It is set up a bit more seriously, and there is a free version that doesn’t allow you to look ahead in the week. Rest assured, neither app will ask you to bury your phone on the third full moon of the year.
Biogarden is $2.99 on iTunes
When Wine Taste Best is free or $2.99 on iTunes
Top image: BioGarden app. Courtesy of Summersun Corp
Eat more fish. That’s one of the prerequisites of the Mediterranean diet. We all know fish is good for us, yet Americans eat less than 16 pounds a year, man, woman and child. And for a lot of us, this sumptuous route to a healthy diet is simply unheard of. Astonishingly, there are people in this country who have never tasted fish.
Well, I was lucky. I grew up and learned to eat and cook in New England, on the coast of Maine where fish and seafood are considered a normal, customary part of each week’s menu. We weren’t Catholics, but we still ate fish on Fridays, possibly because there was a greater selection on that day. And of course we ate Maine lobster, scallops and crab. But the chef d’oeuvre of my mother’s kitchen was baked stuffed haddock, which I loved so much that later, when I went away to school, my mother always made it for that first welcome-home supper of vacation. She stuffed the whole fish with something like poultry stuffing — sagey, bread-crumby, oniony, thymey, peppery, and delicious — and then served it with a white sauce with sliced hard-boiled eggs in it. This doesn’t sound as enticing now as it was back then; tastes change with time, but I think if my mother were alive now and made that for me, I would tuck into it with just as much gusto as I did when I was 15.
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Explore beyond tuna and shrimp
I’ve always been perplexed at the indifference so many Americans, especially those away from the coasts, display toward seafood. Tuna is our favorite fish, but the greatest quantity we consume by far is canned. That’s a good thing, too, because canned tuna is mostly albacore and not the gravely endangered bluefin. Shrimp is our second favorite and that’s not good because, as delicious as some shrimp can be, most are raised on vast shrimp farms by environmentally destructive, highly questionable practices that yield a tasteless lump of rubbery resistant flesh, good as a foil for cocktail sauce and not much else. If you can get wild shrimp, fantastic! But most of us can’t.
Home cooks steer away from fish because it’s expensive and they don’t know how to prepare it, and then it stinks up the kitchen. Tasteless frozen pre-cooked shrimp and canned tuna require no preparation, which may be a large part of their appeal. Why bother with anything else?
Bother for these reasons: a) because any seafood made at home will be cheaper and probably tastier than in a restaurant; b) because it’s actually very easy to prepare; and c) because, the greatest selling point, it is unassailably good for you. Despite some popular beliefs that fish contains harmful amounts of mercury, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded in a meta-analysis back in 2006 (published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., or JAMA) the health risks from consuming fish are unsubstantiated and have been greatly exaggerated. A much greater risk, said Dr. Eric Rimm, co-author of the study, “is in store for those who avoid fish entirely.”
Even the ultra-conservative American Heart Assn. suggests two seafood meals a week, and the Mediterranean diet recommends “at least” two or three servings weekly for everyone, including children.
“I could never get my kid to eat fish.” I hear you, loud and clear.
Fish for small-fry
Try this: Make fish fingers or nuggets by cutting up some halibut (or salmon grouper, mahi-mahi or the like). Kids love anything fried and crunchy, that they can eat with their hands. Set up three bowls, one with flour in it, one with a well-beaten egg or two, and one with good unflavored bread crumbs seasoned with a pinch of salt and, if your kids will tolerate greenery, some very finely minced parsley. Have a skillet with a skiff of olive oil in the bottom (2 tablespoons or so, depending on the size of the pan) ready to go on the stove.
Now dip each fish finger into the flour, rolling it to coat thoroughly, and shake off the excess. Dip the flour-coated fish into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off. Put the egg-coated fish into the bowl with the breadcrumbs and roll it around, pressing on all sides so the breadcrumbs adhere. When all your fish fingers are done, set the skillet over medium heat and as soon as the oil is hot, add the fish fingers in a single layer—do it in two or more batches if you have to. Fry until crisp and brown on one side, then turn and fry on the other. By the time the bread-crumb coating is toasty brown, the inside will be cooked through. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges to squeeze on top.
Fish recipe with no fishy smell
Here’s another, only slightly more complicated treatment for those of you who worry about smelling the house up with fishy odors. For each serving, take a square sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the center, then set a piece of firm-textured fish (see the suggestions above) on it. Add a few disks of carrot and potato, blanched until just starting to tenderize, a slender ring of a smallish red onion, a few slices of zucchini, and perhaps a sliver of red pepper, green chili pepper or a couple of very small grape tomatoes. Fresh herbs are also nice with this—chives, thyme sprigs, or coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil. Sprinkle another teaspoon of oil over the top, add a genteel spritz of lemon juice, and then pull the corners of the foil up and twist them to seal, making a loose packet. Set the packets on a tray and transfer the tray to a preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is done and the carrot and potato slices are tender. Serve in the packets — no fuss, no muss, no cleanup, and no fishy smell in the kitchen.
The message from the Mediterranean? Fish is good for you, it’s simple and easy to prepare, and, as those Harvard researchers determined, the health risks are minimal compared to the benefits. Farmed fish or wild (and the greatest percentage of our seafood consumption these days comes from aquaculture), it’s all to the good.
Top photo: Seafood display. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Daniel Pauly, marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, says we’re close to harvesting the last wild fish from the sea. If we do, we’ll have no choice but to eat farmed fish. Figuring out how to farm sustainably without bringing unbearable pressure on wild stock seems like a wise course. Perhaps we should save wild fish for special occasions, as we do wild meat, and the rest of the time eat what’s farmed by viable methods.
A good half of all seafood consumed by Americans comes from aquaculture of some kind — shrimp, oysters, branzino, Arctic char, and of course, Atlantic salmon. Seventy-five percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully fished or overfished, says the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s time to face up to the need to farm fish sustainably.
A lesson in how to do that is dramatically present in Chile’s far south where I was a guest recently of SOTA, Salmon of the Americas, an organization that promotes Chilean salmon aquaculture. The southern third of that long nation is a coastline of spectacularly indented fjords and islands washed by deep, chilly waters surging up from Antarctica. This nutrient-rich environment is prime salmon-raising territory, as ideal as the coasts of Norway or the lochs of northwest Scotland. Although not native to the Pacific, Atlantic salmon thrive on Chile’s clean cold water and strong currents.
Chile’s salmon saga
Salmon farming is relatively new in Chile, but in just a couple of decades the country surged to second place in salmon production, rivaling only Norway. Then, in 2007, a calamitous epidemic of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) broke out, decimating farms and threatening Chile’s industry with complete collapse. By 2009, production had dropped by almost 60%, and Wal-Mart, a major buyer, turned to Norwegian suppliers. Chilean processors closed their doors, fish farms shut down and thousands of workers lost their jobs.
Such a scenario was predictable, observers said. Chile had become an international scandal, notorious throughout the tightly knit world of salmon aquaculture for crowded cages, polluted waters and abundant use of antibiotics and pesticides, including those banned by the United States and other countries. In 2005, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) censured Chilean salmon operations. But producers were on a financial roll. “In the middle of a party, it’s difficult to communicate that something’s not right,” says Adolfo Avial, an industry consultant who sounded an early warning. “They didn’t want to see the problem.”
I was expecting the worst as I headed south from Santiago, Chile’s capital. I’ve visited salmon farms in the past, in Maine (a state that vaunts rigid environmental regulations for fish farming) and in Scotland’s extreme northwest. In both places I was impressed by the concern for environmental issues. Salmon farmers on both sides of the Atlantic have adopted more sustainable practices, combating disease through inoculation rather than medication, strengthening barriers between farms and the open ocean, and cutting back radically on the amount of wild fish necessary to provide meal and oil for salmon diets.
How Chile’s industry came back from the brink
What I found in Chile was an incredible story of the rebirth of a moribund industry. If it took disaster to bring Chilean salmon producers to their senses, the remarkable part of the story is the rapid recovery. On my weeklong visit to areas around Puerto Montt, I followed the salmon cycle, from the hatchery where eggs spawn, through the developing smolt stage, to sea cages and finally, two years after spawning, to the plant where mature fish are processed, filleted, thoroughly deboned, sometimes smoked and then flown to Miami where fish arrive within 18 hours.
Salmon quality, whether live fish leaping in cages or glistening rosy fillets on assembly lines, was impressive, as were the biosecurity measures employed. Everywhere, our group donned protective gear similar to that worn by plant workers, stepping through sanitizing pools, sometimes not daring to breathe to protect the atmosphere. This striking reform distinguishes Chile from more relaxed standards I’ve seen elsewhere. Other reforms were less visible: cage density, for instance, is reduced from 23 kilos per square meter to less than 14 kilos, so fish mortality has dropped from 15% to 0.2% per month, and growth rate has improved. Another important change: Fish are no longer transferred from cage to cage, mixing up different year classes and making it impossible to trace problems back to their source. Just as with humans, this kind of promiscuity is infectious.
ISA, which researchers compare to human influenza — omnipresent but seldom infectious — is no longer virulent in Chile in part because of biosecurity, and also because fish eggs, a suspected disease vector, are no longer imported, and the fish are inoculated against ISA and other diseases.
The end result is a bigger and better industry providing consumers with a product that is not just safe and inexpensive, but also delicious. The driving financial impetus, in other words, is product quality, and here Chile is clearly a leader. The salmon I saw and tasted was first-rate. If this keeps up, Chile’s salmon revival is guaranteed.
And if we fish-lovers hold the wild catch for truly special occasions, we’ll be a step closer to saving our oceans as well.
Chilean Salmon Fillets With Almond-Caper Sauce
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 head garlic
4 boneless fillets (about 8 ounces each) of Chilean salmon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (Chilean, if available)
¾ cup dry white wine, preferably a Chilean viognier or sauvignon blanc
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped
4 tablespoons salt-packed capers, well rinsed and dried
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Separate the individual cloves of garlic but do not peel them. Set the cloves on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the fish fillets on both sides with salt and pepper.
4. Use a little of the oil to grease an ovenproof baking dish, then arrange the fish steaks side by side in the dish and pour the wine and remaining olive oil over them. Cover the dish and transfer to the oven to bake for 20 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, peel the garlic and chop the cloves. Combine the chopped garlic with the almonds and the onion in the bowl of a food processor. Add 3 tablespoons of the capers and pulse briefly, just to crush the ingredients and mix well — but do not make a paste.
6. When the salmon is done, remove the fish from the baking dish and keep warm on a platter. Bring the broth left in the baking dish to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Stir in the almond paste and simmer until the sauce is thick. Top the fish with the sauce and garnish with the remaining capers.
Photo: Chilean salmon. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Late last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB376, a bill that outlaws the sale and posession of shark fins within the state. “Some shark populations have declined by more than 90 percent,” he said at the time, “portending grave threats to our environment and commercial fishing industries.” He signed the bill, he said, “in the interests of future generations.” Brown also signed a companion bill, AB853, that would give suppliers and restaurants another 18 months to exhaust their existing stock of shark fins, meaning that, practically speaking, AB376 will not go into effect until July 2013.
But that doesn’t mean the shark fin debate is closed. The 400-year-old “Compendium of Materia Medica,” one of the most respected manuals of Chinese traditional medicine, claims shark fins “can nourish the five organs [heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys], increase kidney function, and are good both as a tonic and as an appetite stimulant.” The tradition continues. Chinese cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo claims that shark fins benefit the complexion as well. That, she says, “is why the Chinese regard the shark fin so highly.”
Not everyone concurs. Noted Harvard nutritionist Lilian Cheung, co-author with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh of “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,” says traditional medicine should be reevaluated. “I respect some of the claims,” she explains, “but it’s just like anything else with Chinese medicine: it’s sort of passed down through the centuries. We need to look at that together with the new scientific paradigm and see where they converge. It’s a good source of protein, there’s no question about it. But protein is something that Americans are not deficient in.”
Protein, water and ash
According to a recent report from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, 97.5 percent of a dried shark fin is protein for the most part, with a bit of water; ash is the third-highest component at 2.2 percent. The rest of the fin consists of small amounts of fat, calcium, iron and phosphorus. Cheung laughs when asked about the nutritional value of shark fins. “From a nutritionist’s standpoint,” she says, “I don’t think it’s a good value! Nowadays, they are so expensive, and you’re not getting high quality.”
Chen Cunren, the late authority on Chinese cuisine and traditional medicine, wrote about shark fins and their nutritional value in his newspaper columns, which were collected under the title “Jinjin youwei tan” or “Talks on Eating With Gusto.” Chen pointed to a Shanghai study that found shark fins to be a concentrated source of protein, but he nonetheless promoted vegetarianism. “Eating shark fins every day is very detrimental to the digestive system,” he concluded, because they are so hard to assimilate.
Mercury counteracts potential benefits
Shark expert John McCosker of the California Academy of Sciences has often been asked whether shark fins are beneficial. “Absolutely not!” he says. “A bowl of vegetable soup is good for your health, but a bowl of shark fin soup can increase one’s impotence! It’s ironic, but consuming all of those toxins and that much mercury is bad for you.”
Does that mean that the benefits of eating shark fin soup don’t outweigh its potential harmful effects? “No one to my knowledge has been able to demonstrate any health value of consuming the soup,” McCosker says.
Large predatory ocean fish are likely to be high in mercury, McCosker says. But it’s almost impossible to measure the quantity. According to Peter Knights, the co-director of the conservation organization WildAid, “the only advice on mercury is the same pretty much for any fish: The lower down the food chain, the safer you are.”
Chinese consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers. A report on the Chinese-language television station KTSF in San Francisco’s Bay Area last May said pregnant women should avoid shark fin altogether because of the mercury. The amount of protein in dried shark fin is roughly the same, ounce for ounce, as that in dried egg whites.
The bottom line: Despite Chinese tradition, contemporary thought suggests that consuming shark meat and fins can be dangerous — and in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington — illegal too.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Illustration credit: Carolyn J. Phillips
Every year, from January until April, a particular kind of fish comes — briefly — into season. This is skrei, the Norwegian Arctic cod, which sets off in massive shoals from the icy Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle, headed for the waters around the Lofoten archipelago off the coast of Norway. The name of this winter wandering cod is derived, appropriately, from the Norse word for a “walker” or “wanderer.”
The arrival of the mature fish, which migrate southward to spawn, is greeted with jubilation by the north Norwegian fishermen and their customers. Once strictly a local delicacy, skrei is now found at top tables all over Europe. I recently heard one Spanish chef describe it as “the pata negra of the cod kingdom,” referring to the prized jamón ibérico. The flesh is pearly white and unbelievably succulent, with bold, firm flakes.
Until a couple of weeks ago, I was a skrei virgin. Then everything changed with a visit to chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s restaurant La Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim near Colmar, Alsace. Just a taste of Guggenbuhl’s skrei with a citrus crust and orange butter sauce and I was hooked. Chef Guggenbuhl discovered this fine fish some 10 years ago; now he serves it up every year at his restaurant. “I put it on my menu as a special every January till the beginning of April,” he says. “People know about it now, they look out for it.”
Before you round up a lynching party and set off for the Taverne Alsacienne to stage a boycott à la Legal Seafoods, it’s important to realize that there’s cod, and there’s cod. Overfishing of Atlantic cod is a hot topic. The Norwegian Arctic cod from the Barents Sea is another story. Here, the fisheries have been strictly regulated since 1816 when the first regulations governing skrei fishing off the Lofoten Islands were put into place. Today’s regulations cover the type of boat permitted, the size and type of nets, even the time of day fishing may start. Thanks to these measures, Arctic cod stocks are so robust that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) actually increased the recommended permitted skrei catch from 577,500 metric tons in 2010 to 703,000 in 2011.
As Karin Olsen of the Norwegian Seafood Export Council explained: “There are several different cod populations in the world, but unfortunately they are often mentioned just as ‘cod’ in the media. Therefore there is a big confusion around the question of whether cod is sustainable or not.” Invoking the careful, fruitful measures that have been taken for almost two centuries to conserve Norway Arctic cod stocks, she adds, “You can serve your skrei with good conscience.”
Guggenbuhl delights in the annual skrei season, buying the whole fish (average weight 4 to 6 kilos, or 8 to 12 pounds) from his supplier in Strasbourg and preparing the fillets in the restaurant kitchen. He loves its firm, snowy white flesh, and the fact that it’s slightly cheaper than the generally less interesting (and endangered) regular cod. This allows him to offer his fine dish at a competitive 23 Euros. And with a clear conscience.
Skreï de Norvège en Croûte d’agrumes Au Beurre d’oranges
(Arctic Cod With a Citrus Crust and Orange Butter Sauce)
For the citrus crust:
For the orange butter sauce:
For the fish:
For the citrus crust:
- Take very thin slices of zest off the lemon using a potato peeler.
- Boil a small pan of water and blanch the zests briefly.
- Drain zests, repeat the process four more times, then chop the zest very finely.
- Put the cubes of butter, finely chopped zest, breadcrumbs, grapefruit juice and orange juice in a food processor and process till well mixed.
- Scoop the citrus butter out of the food processor onto a sheet of baking parchment, cover with a second sheet of parchment.
- With a rolling pin, pat and roll out the citrus butter between the sheets of parchment to a large square about 1/8 inch thick – about the thickness of pie crust.
- Refrigerate citrus crust (or freeze – goes faster) till quite firm.
For the orange butter sauce:
- Make a caramel with the sugar and water.
- Deglaze the pan with the orange juice and let it cook down to a syrupy consistency.
- Pull the pan off the heat and beat in the cold butter bit by bit, as if making a beurre blanc, until it emulsifies and thickens.
- Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
- Keep the sauce warm – it will hold for about half an hour.
For the fish:
- Season the fish on both sides with salt and white pepper.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil and a small square of butter in a frying pan until sizzling.
- Fry the fish till just done, about 2 to 3 minutes each side, depending on thickness.
- Lift fish pieces onto a lightly oiled baking sheet that will fit under your grill (broiler).
- Heat the grill (broiler) to maximum.
- Cut the chilled citrus crust in squares to fit exactly on top of the fish pieces.
- Lay a square of citrus crust on top of each piece of fish and give them a fierce blast under the grill/broiler until the crust is lightly golden and bubbly.
- Serve with the orange butter sauce and vegetables in season.
Photos from top:
Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s Skrei de Norvège en croûte d’agrumes au beurre d’orange. Credit: Thierry Meyer
Norwegian Arctic Cod. Credit: Frederike Arndt, © Norwegian Seafood Export Council
On a grey London day, a small fleet of fishing boats chugs up the River Thames toward Westminster, the seat of Britain’s parliament. Sounding horns and waving banners encourage people to JOIN THE FISH FIGHT. On the lead ship is celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who is well known to British TV audiences for his “real food” campaigns and for the River Cottage series, in which he shows how to live off the land. He’s holding up a huge dead cod as he shakes his head. “Around 50 percent of all fresh fish being caught in the North Sea are being thrown back into the water, dead, and that’s an unsustainable, shocking waste,” the likable 46-year-old explains.
To illustrate his frustration about British and other European fishing practices, Fearnley-Whittingstall has made three TV programs called “Hugh’s Fish Fight.” They’re part of British Channel 4′s Big Fish Fight series, made with a clutch of other high-profile U.K. chefs, including Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. (You can watch them online for the next few weeks).
In his shows, Fearnley-Whittingstall questions the moral, environmental and economic price of current fishing policy. Each episode covers a different aspect of the dilemma, from the plight of tuna, to whether fish farming really is sustainable (it takes three kilos of wild fish to produce one kilo of farmed salmon), to “discards” or “by-catch” from trawling. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s high visibility brings these arguments into the prime-time living rooms of a large, non-specialized audience of more than 2.3 million viewers and is a valuable contribution to the fight that’s long been waged by Greenpeace, Slow Fish and other environmental organizations.
Discards are a particularly distressing issue. They refer to the waste of over 1 million tonnes (about 1.1 million U.S. tons) per year of perfectly good fish that fishermen are forced to dump back into the sea in order to abide by European fishing laws.
Here’s how it works: Every fishing boat, depending on its size and location, is allotted an annual quota, limiting the amount of each species it is permitted to catch. The idea behind this is, in part, to prevent over-fishing of certain species. So far, so good. Out at sea, however, this bureaucratic solution can cause problems. If a ship reaches its full annual quota of, say, cod in eight months, for the last four months of the year it will be obliged to throw back any cod it catches. The trawlers’ nets are not able to be selective as they scoop up large quantities of mixed fish. Each haul is sorted on board, and fish that exceed the quotas must be thrown back. They are, by this time, dead. So, thousands of metric tons of edible fish end up on the bottom of the sea to be eaten by crabs.
Fearnley-Whittingstall is no stranger to this sort of activism: His 2008 “Chicken Out!” series, also on Channel 4, helped raise awareness about the devastating conditions of battery hens, and persuaded some supermarkets to use more free-range chickens and eggs.
Reactions to the shows have been positive. To date, more than 540,000 people have signed a petition calling for an end to the discards (add your name to it on the Fish Fight site). Tesco, one of Britain’s largest retailers, announced a switch to selective, pole-and-line caught tuna for its private label canned tuna. The company previously used tuna caught in vast purse seine nets which can also trap porpoise, turtles and shark.
Another practical idea has been supported by chefs Oliver and Blumenthal. Britons are crazy for cod. But if they can be encouraged to broaden their tastes to include mackerel for their fish and chips, or easy-to-prepare coley or mussels for their dinners, then some of that demand for cod will be spread to other, more abundantly available fish. Oliver’s super-easy recipes can and should inspire everyone to cook a greater range of seafood.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Photos from top:
Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with by-catch.
Fearnley-Whittingstall with discarded fish he took from the sea on ice.
Credits: Channel 4