We aim to be fishers of chefs.
With all the hubbub over Chinese New Year and the dawning Year of the Monkey, we allowed Lent to begin unnoticed and unsung in the Fish-O-Gram. This week, we correct the oversight. Lent officially began this year on Ash Wednesday, February 10 and ends on Holy Thursday, March 24. During this time Catholics are strictly forbidden to eat meat on Fridays. Too, they are encouraged to give up specific foods and generally challenge themselves with prayer and abstentions. Years back Catholics were supposed to forego meat every Friday, not just during Lent. This changed in 1966, when Pope Paul VI issued a decree delegating responsibility for fasting schedules to national conferences of Bishops. Shortly thereafter Americas Bishops met and rescinded the requirement for year-round meatless Fridays, though they did ask that Catholics replace fish Fridays with some other form of penance. This sparked a years-long swoon in fish pricing. These facts are well known.
Less widely trumpeted is the importance of Rome-Mandated fish eating in developing global trade and settling the Americas. It is no accident that Christopher Columbus, an Italian/Portugese man sailing under the Spanish flag, was the one to discover the new world. Earlier Norse and Celtic visitors to the New World were also seeking fish, from Leif Erickson to John Cabot. As much as Gold and Glory, or Silk and Spice, Columbus was chasing fish, and he was doing so at the behest of his God and his Church.
Popular wisdom has it that the Catholic Hierarchy made a deal to boost fish sales centuries back--that meatless Fridays are another cheap deal from the golden age of Vatican corruption--This makes a great story but is untrue. Fish have been a staple of feasts since time began and have always represented elevated spiritual virtues--clean, stoic, free-swimming and removed from the muck and muddle of humanity, as opposed to the generally squalid lives of livestock raised side by side with the generally squalid lives of early-day farm-folk. Fish have much lower instances of deformities and parasites than livestock and wild game--mostly because underwater life is so consistently brutal that any sub-prime fish specimens are quickly eaten by something larger. It is well known fact of ethnology that fish-oriented cultures world wide have been cleaner and more culturally advanced than farming or hunter types--compare Northwest Coast Natives or the Japanese with the Mongols or Russian Peasants.
As the Christian church developed, fish were the obvious feasting/fasting food. Plus, Jesus himself made a distinct point of seeking out fisherfolk during his time here. Recently this connection has led many in the fishing industry to cast our ongoing political and regulatory struggles in biblical terms. Your Fish-O-Gram writer's first pickup truck had a "Jesus Was A Gillnetter" Bumper Sticker. This sentiment reached it's peak in 1996, during the battle against an initiative that would have banned commercial fishing in Washington State. Sanctified Seattle Gillnetter John Macdonald called into a Christian sport fishing radio program to declare that "Jesus would rip your head off" to anyone who voting to put the fishermen out of work. I-640 went down in flames, 20 years later we are still fishing and the misguided, anti-fishing forces have been left to repent at leisure--no heads have been ripped off. Mercy in action.
Words to live by
Fish represent both a Penance and a Good Work-- eating fish is good as a negative--eating fish means not eating meat, a sacrifice, and a positive--eating fish is a virtue, in and of itself, like charity and piety. As of 1000 AD, more or less, Meatless Fridays became a requirement for the faithful--eating meat on Friday was considered a mortal sin on par with adultery and gossip-mongering. This presented real problems for those not lucky enough to live on a coast. Satisfying land-locked Catholics required a well-oiled trade in some form of preserved fish. As discussed in a previous Fish-O-Gram, the church allowed for some artful end-runs for those in places too far removed from trade routes, most notably dispensation for Conquistadors to eat Capibara and Beaver in lieu of fish. Fish do not preserve equally--the stand-out fish for preservation regard is Cod. Cod is not found in any real numbers near the southern Catholic population centers, so an extensive trade route developed to tie Cod-producing northern regions to Cod-consuming Southern regions. More often than not the return leg of the trip carried alcohol from the vineyards and distilleries of Central and Southern Europe. Traders off-loading salt cod in Portugal filled their holds with the cheapest, nastiest rotgut they could find for the return voyage. By the time the ship returned to Norway, Iceland or the Faroes, months of agitation inside oak casks had mellowed and improved the liquor through aeration and oxidation of the volatiles. Grateful Nordic fishermen flavored the spirits with moss, reindeer droppings and botanicals and drank themselves stupid. Fish trade, driven by the Catholic church, led to phenomenal improvements in transportation, navigation and logistics technology, not to mention Nordic alcoholism. These advances, and the ongoing search for fish-rich grounds led directly to the discovery and colonization of the New World.
It'll be there by Friday.
While Catholics represent just 1/4 of the JFF crew, we love Pope Francis. These blustery, long last weeks of winter are a perfect time to reflect on god and man, the nature of life and our place in the world. We like to think there is room within the Fish-O-Gram format for more than just the tawdry nuts and bolts of protein commerce.
This years' Lent message from the Pope is "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” This seems a valuable thought for all, regardless of denomination. And if focusing on fish helps sweeten the soul and concentrate the mind, so much the better.
JFF Salutes Pope Francis!
A man for all Seasons.
Local Fisheries Updates
March 19th- Livin' the dream!
Tribal Halibut continues to be scheduled for March 19. We have begun securing bait and locking down arrangements with our fisher friends. Big Fun!!! Also, happily, we have also secured a bottomless market for skate wings. Skate come in along with the halibut in huge numbers--last year our primary folks at Lummi got 20,000+# and we, frankly, were swamped. Seems the skate market in Korea is red hot right now and we've got a container to fill. Moving Skate is slimy, caustic and nasty--but it represents fuel money for the guys and is part of our service as fish buyers. So, here's skating clean, all the way to Seoul! Halibut will be available in Seattle beginning the morning of the 20th, weather permitting. ORDER NOW!!!!! Remember, our San Juans Halibut are the best in the world, cradled in North America's beauty spot, raised on a steady diet of Spot Prawns and soft Dungeness Crab. Don't get stuck with the inferior Alaska or Coastal product, Call Paisley now! Two years ago Elliots got a 240# halibut caught by Ilya Joy of Lummi. There are monsters down there!
The Lummi Nation went fishing and all we got was this creepy skate.
Continuing the general upward swing of our in-sound fisheries, WDFW just bumped the Puget Sound Crab Quota by 180,000#, split between tribes and state fishers. This is on top of the already allocated and harvested 5,000,000#. A trickle of beautiful, hard-shelled crab come in daily. Fishers report their traps are stuffed with huge numbers of soft-shelled crabs just coming into legal harvest size. So we have abundant hard crab for another six weeks or so, though the price is getting a little stiff. And next summer for the sport and tribal fisheries should be as good or better than last years' superlative fishing. Come visit for a crab-themed Island get-away!
Pink Scallop Update--Department of New Horizons
Last week was the best weather week of the 2016 so far. We had high hopes, but our divers did not make it out. Divers are the sauciers of the fisheries world and we are finding that we have zero control over their behavior. As those lucky few of you who got teaser bags of scallops may have noticed, we have jumped the price to you so as to sweeten the price to the divers. Our hope was that a higher price would be a nice carrot for the divers, but it seems we need a bigger stick of some kind. And now the weather has turned, so we are least a few days out from any serious attempts for scallops. Joe Stephens, our superstar dive master, is on the prowl for more divers. Diving is the perfect job for water-loving urban refugees. If you are tired of the Seattle culinary bump-and-grind, consider trading your apron and knives for a wetsuit and butterfly net. No tipping--pay is by the pound. Joe will train! Celebrity Chefs welcome to apply!
With your help pink scallops will become a regular, week by week product.
It's better down here.
Excellent Fresh Meats are rolling out from the knife-wielding wizards at Link Lab. Call Paisley or Sara to build a fresh meats program for your needs. We have regular supplies of Lopez Lamb, Lopez Pork and Lopez and Skagit Beef.
All meats are from Jones Ranch or specified, equivalent producers. Come see the magic happen at Link Lab. The LL boys are on fire! Go Jerry! Go Jesse!
Remember, the difference is in the Grass and in the Cutting.
Give Me Fluke or Give Me Beer.
Attentive Fish-O-Gram readers will have noticed a tapering in Eastern fish abundance and variety these past weeks. This is because the Rhode Island Fluke season is in full tilt and Pt Judith fishermen are in full blown Fluke Frenzy. Everything else has fallen by the wayside, laundry is piling up and huge volumes of fluke are making their flatfish way to markets near and far. That said, we do have Monk, T&T, John Dory and Black Sea Bass coming in for the end of the week. Call Paisley. Oh, and if anyone wants some, Fluke is extremely available. On the East Coast Fluke are considered a prime animal--often used for sushi.
Why Doesn't Seattle Love Fluke?
Chef Call-In Corner
The most common questions we field are about fish freshness. You, our customer base, demand the best, and it is our delight to provide you the best. What the best means though, is a rolling notion, particularly when it comes to fish freshness. For many of you, the below information will be old hat. But it needs to be written.
One fish, fresh fish, firm fish, blue fish.
When it comes to freshness, the fish-by fish variations can be devilishly complex. Not all fish are created equal, even within species, and any natural attributes of the fish can be mitigated or compounded by harvest type and handling. The primary variables impacting fish freshness are fish variety, harvest methods and post-harvest handling.
Hot Belly/Cool Belly
As with any living organism, guts, blood, slime and organs will deteriorate much faster than flesh. Predatory fish, midwater fish, being high-metabolism, as opposed to herbivorous fish or low-metabolism bottom-dwelling fish, suffer with the rapid breakdown of prey fish in their bellies. The principle is exactly like a compost pile--flesh in a digestive tract is "hot" and greenery is "cool". A hot digestive tract can burn through the intestinal lining and begin to degrade belly flesh within a few hours after a fish dies. Belly burned fish will have discolored belly meat and dissolved pinbones. In extreme cases, the entire belly can be ruined. Ice slows the process down, but does not stop it. The best thing for hot bellied fishes is immediate gutting and ideally bleeding as well. Degree of chilling is also all important. The closer to freezing the fish gets, the better it will hold up. Most fisheries ice is made with salt to lower the ice temperature. A little salt in the ice also help to draw out slime, which is highly volatile.
Smaller and midwater fishes tend to have short shelf-lives. Small oily fish, like sardines and mackerel and squid, have very short shelf lives. This is why so much of these fishes are frozen. An issue with small "wetfish" (sardines, squid, etc) is that they are too small to efficiently gut on board and so, regardless of icing, they generally need to be prepared within a week of harvest.
Coho salmon is the most volatile salmon, followed by King. That is a major part of why these fish have traditionally been caught by trollers--there is no particular magic in line catching fish--actually, line playing a fish can release large amounts of lactic acid in the flesh. Trollers catch fish in small enough volume to bleed and gut them immediately after harvest. Nowadays progressive trollers slip a charged catheter tube onto fish livers and flush blood out of the entire fish. Sockeye, by contrast, as herbivores, can sit for extended periods with their guts in with no degradation of the fish. This is why gillnet caught sockeye is the best sockeye there is--gillnets are a nice, gentle way to die, and while it is always better to gut fish right away, it doesn't absolutely need to be done. Gillnetters who bleed and dress fish in the Troll fashion produce some of the finest salmon, of all species, of anyone on the water. In any case, the quality of handling from harvest onward is much more important than chronological age. Trollers routinely fish for up to ten days between deliveries. As long as the fish have been fully cleaned, amply iced and lovingly handled, there is no problem with shooting ten day old fish into the supply chain. They will remain premium for at least another ten days. Summertime on the rivers here the tribal fishery generally goes forth with minimal ice and rough handling. A river king salmon tossed in an open skiff, not iced and not dressed, may be inedible within a few hours, while we would have no problem recommending a 20 day old troll king. The other variable is proximity to spawning grounds and diet--again, an ocean-caught salmon will be flawless and can hold up much longer in transport, while an inshore-caught fish is more likely to be already degraded as it prepares itself for spawning. Purse Seine caught salmon tends to be the softest, based on the violence of the harvest and the volumes typically caught at one time.
Most bottom fish tend to hold up fairly well. This is partially a function of their slower metabolism. Here again, harvest method is critical, with drag-caught fish getting scuffed up before hitting a boat deck. We do our best to not source drag-caught fish for this reason. Hook and line or pot caught is better, especially for higher value species like black cod, pacific cod and monkfish, as these are gutted onboard. Our Rhode Island Friends also catch some bottomfish in fish traps and this fish has proven to be uniformly excellent. Rhode Islands fishers also use gillnets for some bottom species. This is how most of the monk and dory is caught. Again, gillnets are gentle, and the high value of these fishes means post-harvest handling is excellent. This does vary widely by species. One common Eastern flatfish used to be known as the Baptist Flounder, always thrown back because it invariably goes bad shortly after coming out of the water. For the most part fishes that are transported long distance or held for extended times are fishes that can hold up to this. Fishes that cannot are frozen or rendered.
Age can be a good thing.
Some fish, like Halibut, actually improves as with age. The old-time schoonermen would make 20-40 day trips from Seattle to the Bering Sea for fresh halibut. Fishing would commence and fish would be layered, with ice, until the holds were full. Upon unloading, returning crewmen considered the earliest, lowest fish in the holds to be the premium fish for homepack. Aged halibut develops a wonderful round, buttery flavor. My first season in Alaska we forgot about a half-halibut in a side hatch for three weeks. When rediscovered the fish had turned yellowish and had plumped up from the salt and ice. It had a strong, but not unpleasant aroma, kind of like a mellow hard cheese. Cooked it was delicious, vastly superior to the sqeaky-fresh fletch we had cooked the night we caught it. Salmon is the same, though the squeakyness of too-fresh salmon fades much more rapidly. Sturgeon and some varieties of Eel don't even stop twitching for 3-4 days post harvest. During this time they are literally inedible, assuming you can even pin one down to cut it.
I'll take the one on the bottom.
The Supply chain is What it is.
Barring truly heroic efforts or a great stroke of luck, fish doesn't come much fresher than 5 days or a week old. Between the ups and downs of weather, timelines of fishing, shore handling and the world of logistics, this is just the way things are. When we have fresher fish, we heavily advertise that fact. Even there, farm fish is generally at least a week old, based on processing and transportation limitations. Most fish in grocery stores is at least ten days old. This should not be a problem if the fish has been well handled, and should allow for 5-6 days in a customer's home. Some fresh fishes like sardines move on a more streamlined basis because they have to. This is one reason fresh wetfish rarely turns up on retail counters.
Shellfish Guide.Shellfish are a giant exception to these guidelines. When it comes to shellfish, the fresher the better. This is why we pull shellfish fresh from the water early mornings on delivery days, not from a warehouse. Accept no substitutes!
It's Not the Days on the Fish, it's the Bruises, Hands and Temperature. Our Campaign Promise.
Fish should look good, smell good and be free of bruises and blood. If those conditions apply, age is pretty much irrelevant. Unlike many distributors, we will always tell you what we know about fish origins. Dealing with variable aged-product is an inherent part of working with wild fisheries. We ask that you evaluate the fish on it's merits rather than chronological age. Also we encourage all of you to put some of the local halibut aside, nice and cold, for 3-4 weeks as culinary experiment. It will have the properties of a finely aged steak, only better, because it is fish.
Tell it like it is.