Monday, June 19, 2017

Grain is in! Record Smelt Catch! Scallop Update! Baker River Sockeye!!! Spring Fisheries + Crab Summer Series....Let the games begin!!! Restaurant Review--Lopez Welcomes Ursa Minor!!

Dear Unseasonably Cold Customers,

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The Barley is Up!

2017 has been quite a spring.  Puget Sound Spring fisheries have been delayed, sidetracked and generally unsatisfying.  Alaska fisheries have been just fine, but the big-ticket fisheries are only now getting kicked off.   As far as JFF farming activities, things are textbook.  Following a late start due to the wetness, we got the last of our grain crops in Sunday the 4th, just before the weather turned.  So our fields are turning to carpets of green as the plucky little shoots enjoy moderate temperatures and abundant moisture.  Barring some freakish weather happenstance this summer or fall, a plague of grasshoppers or other such act of celestial nastiness, we are dialed for an excellent crop!!!  
Lopez Smelt Bonanza!!!
Of the many kinds of smelt available, river smelt, ocean smelt and surf smelt, we prefer our islands surf Smelt. They are larger, sweeter and, handled by us, fresher than any other we have seen or handled. 
Randy O'Bryant, our smelt fisherman, is a fisher of opportunity.  He goes smelting around the tides, weather, WDFW imposed opening limits, availability of help, condition of his back and another few hundred variables.  Fishing smelt does not mean catching--the technique is to set a curled net off the beach for a few hours on either side of the top end of the tide, ideally at dusk, and wait for a marauding school of smelt to swim along on its way to spawn on the beach.  More often than not the catch is nothing, or small enough that it ends up getting parcelled out o the fisher-help.  But a good catch can be huge.  Back in the day smelt seining was the winter occupation for salmon fishermen or loggers when the woods got too wet and nasty.  Fried, pickled, grilled or sauteed, smelt are a rare treat.  Mild and flavorful, they have all the strange, bony glamour of herring or sardines but a cleaner, fresher flavor.
At one time all the islands' beaches were fished, at least occasionally, and to this day, a fair handful of smelt nets lurk in garages and tumbledown sheds.  These days Randy is the last one with an active fishery, he even built a completely new net a few years back.  His smelt haunt is a small pocket beach on the South side of Mud Bay, on the South End of Lopez.  Our local smelt come to the island to spawn year-round, with fish having dramatically different qualities at different times of year.   Uniquely, they spawn at the very top end of the tidal range, meaning the eggs, once laid, spend substantial amounts of time out of the water.  This means that smelt are easily caught while spawning.  A few years back our boys used baseball caps to catch spawning smelt down the beach from the shellfish farm.  Winter smelt are small and shiny, summer smelt are larger and fatter.  Late spring we usually see a few catches of glorious, pendulous, orange-bellied smelt.  These smelt, bursting with roe and milt, are the high-point of the years' smelt.  Like every other form of marine life, Smelt are highly cyclical and the last few years have marked a down cycle, and we have come to expect smaller and less frequent catches.  That said, this spring we have seen signs of rebounding smelt.  Mornings at the shellfish farm, the beach has been littered with dead, spawned out smelt that didn't quite make it back into the water.

Inline image 4The White Stuff is Smelt Sperm. 
Given the variable catches we have learned not to get too excited about any given day of smelting.  We have learned this lesson the hard way over the years.  We stockpile no ice, prepare no boxes and we promise nothing to customers.  This means that when the catch is strong, we are unprepared.  Last Thursday night Randy had the largest catch of his career, 1487# of glorious, flopping, orange-bellied, egg-spewing fish, with at least twice that volume turned loose.  We pulled the Jackrabbit, a funky, mostly stripped Astrovan, out of pre-scrap yard retirement, grabbed a 5-gallon bucket for a seat, loaded it to the shocks with ice and smelt and headed off to cold storage.  During the course of the day, the Jackrabbit developed a small but persistent electrical fire in the console, the side door fell off and the front-to-back prisoner barrier gave way, landing 200-300# of smelt in the front passenger seat.  But the smelt made it just fine.  Randy O'Bryant and the persistent, delicious Surf Smelt, JFF Salutes You!!  Remember, we always have frozen smelt and once in a while, fresh.  Special thanks to Gary Lawrence for the use of this beautiful photo. 

Scallop HiatusAs any sharp-eyed Fish-O-Gram reader knows, our new pink scallop fishery is a year-round endeavor.  However, they are extremely susceptible to red tide, or PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning).  Last week PSP levels began to climb in Whatcom County, and plankton monitoring in Eastsound came up with some volume of Alexandrium cells, the plankton that causes red tide.  We have been steadily testing our waters and found some increased PSP in blue mussels, but not yet in the scallops.  Monday's samples from our waters showed PSP levels in the mussels dropping.  However, Whatcom county continues to light up, with the latest samples from Birch Bay and Semiahmoo heading up to danger levels.  Given the speed with which scallops take up the toxin, we have decided to suspend shipments until the PSP situation stabilizes.  Look for further updates! Scallop absence can only make the heart grow fonder.  Also, another excellent and timely scallop article came out recently in Thrillist. seattle/singing-scallops-seatt le-seafood.  Thank you, Naomi! the dinoflagellate bloom subsides, forget me not....

June 22!! Mark The Date!! Baker River Sockeye!! Bound.Next Thursday, the 22nd our favorite Sockeye fishery kicks off!
Baker River sockeye are one of only a handful of early sockeye runs in Washington State.  They are a spectacular fish in every way-- they spend more time in fresh water than any other Sockeye run, meaning their fat reserves are unmatched.  Baker Sockeye have the highest Omega Three reserves of any salmon.  Baker River Sockeye have a deep and rich flavor,, but they also have a subtle, almost perfumed delicacy to them.  They are phenomenal in any salmon preparation, but they truly shine in raw, smoked, cured and pickled preparations.  Baker River Sockeye are also a testament to a tremendous fisheries success story.

The Baker River is a tributary of the mighty Skagit River.  The Baker River fish almost went extinct following construction of a power dam in 1925--reaching a low of 92 returning fish in 1985.  Since that time local tribes and Puget Sound Energy have rebuilt the run to the point where it is now fully self-sustaining and can support robust sport and tribal fisheries.  This year more than 50,000 fish are expected to return.  Our tribal partners harvest the sockeye in limited numbers in the Skagit River. Help us celebrate this culinary and conservation treasure!  Fish will be available in limited quantities starting on the 23nd and stretching for probably four weeks.  Clear Your Menus!!! The Queen of Sockeye is Almost Here!!!!
We also have a handful of flash frozen, Vaccum Packed, Pin Bone Out Baker River sockeye filets from last years' fishery.  We expect to be sold out shortly, 
Average filet size is 1.75-2.25# and they are packed in 50# cases. This is spectacular fish for an extremely reasonable price.  
Bubble Trouble
A combination of nasty weather, a persistently cold mass of water off the coast, funky politics and the usual chaos-theory nature of fisheries have piled up our typical spring fisheries.  Halibut was the victim of nasty inter-tribal brinksmanship and, very sad to say our inside tribes were not been able to capitalize on what should have been a banner year for halibut.  Fishing is generally better early in the spring for inside halibut.  The last opener very few boats bothered to fish and managers scheduled the fishery to take place during a typhoon.  Spot prawns have been equally off--low temperatures have kept catches down as the prawns are less apt to travel to bait.  So those fisheries have been slow, pricing has been ridiculously high and volume disappointing.  The summer cycle of Puget Sound crab openings has been delayed by soft crab, as the Dungeness grow and mature more slowly than usual. Coastal crab has been the only game in town and pricing has been insane.  China has gone dark on crab purchasing--another regulatory, import barrier kind of game.  So what crab has been coming in has been from the Oregon and Washington Coasts, has been weak and has been selling entirely into the domestic market, with lots of claims for deadloss.  Between slow crabbing, the balky Chinese market, and the other fisheries not performing to expectations, the bevy of China-Oriented crab buyers now operating in the state have been going through the slowest time many of them have ever known.  Most of these outfits are fairly new, Chinese-owned and have never ridden out a down-cycle in crab production or markets. The next few years could be interesting, we saw something similar a few years back when geoduck markets began to wobble.  For a good spell live tanks, seawater chillers and geoduck crates were all over Craigslist.  In any case, our crab broker friends have been seeming strained of late...... 

With export markets off the table, domestic crab markets have become a bloodbath as the players vie for market share and activity.  Last week saw a flurry of crab openers in the lower end of Puget Sound, with far too many buyers chasing too few boats, who in turn were chasing too few crab.  Prices were high, but fishing slow enough that most of the fishermen pulled pots long before the opening ended.  However, the crab were large and beautiful., Lethargic and Frustrating.

Crab Price to Plummet!
Monday the first real pop opener of the season gets underway with Port Susan and Skagit Bay opening for 36 hours.  This should be some real volume--the model forecasts 350,000# to be caught in 36 hours.  So this will be the first volume test of domestic markets since April.  At the same time Canadian crabbers are starting to catch some real volume and this product is now driving pricing.  The smart money is calling for boat pricing to settle in the $3 range, down from $7.00# last week.  At these prices, Monday's opener will represent over a million dollars pumped into the local fisheries economy.  As ever, however, anything could happen.  Stay tuned!!  These crab will be large, angry, hard-shelled and bursting with meat.  Test fishing came up with 20+ crab per pot on a two hour soak.  Next opener will likely be in Boundary Bay when test catches show the crab to be hard enough.  From here on out we should have an endless supply of strong, local reasonably priced crab. of the iceberg.  

Watery Delights Ahead!!
Alaska Salmon fisheries kick off for reals this coming week with Bristol Bay, Southeastern and Kodiak kicking in.  Alaska salmon looks strong but not spectacular this year.  We, and every other distributor this side of Duluth will have fresh Salmon For All.  Halibut continues strong, with the most consistently reasonable pricing we have seen in years.  Black Cod is readily available, but expensive.  Looking ahead, Cucumbers open on August 1, Alaska Weathervane Scallops open in July 1.  Washington, Oregon and California troll salmon seasons burn on, with decent catches and high prices.  Pink scallops shall return and our own oyster production, namely Euro Flats and Olympias, is shortly to hit the highest levels in many years.  In the spirit of thinking ahead for preparation's sake, urchin will fire up again in late September.  Urchin demand is up and California production continues to struggle to recover from El Nino, while Southeastern Alaska divers report carnage in the urchin stocks as Sea Otter populations boom.  Puget Sound urchin is currently the strongest resource on the coast and we expect competition for the resource to be very high this fall.  This will mean higher pricing and shorter seasons.  
Ursa Minor, Worth a Meal, Worth a Trip, Worth a Large Tip.  
Over the past years as we have honed our ministry, creative partnerships with chefs have been our greatest motivation, solace and inspiration.  Relationships with chefs, local, regional and beyond have been the driving force of JFF.  We stumbled onto Nick Coffey some years back at Barjot and were instantly smitten with him personally and with his food.  Nick's playful, minimalist, ingredients-driven cuisine puts him in the very top tier of the chefs we have been privileged to work with over the years.  We followed him to Ciudad and were overjoyed when Nick and (now) wife Nova decided to settle on Lopez and take over the former Haven space following Haven's upgrade to the former Bay Cafe building.
Inline image 2The House that Nick and Nova Built. 
Nick proposed to bring something new to the San Juans dining scene--his signature, stylized Northwest minimalism with an uncompromising focus on Lopez-Sourced ingredients.  No fish and chips, no New York Strip with polenta and no Cysco truck.  This was an audacious move--every chef in the county, no matter how skilled and ambitious, makes a point of anchoring menus in the familiar and well loved--flights of fancy are generally restricted to specials and wine dinners.  Nick and Nova's gamble was that exclusively focusing on his signature style would draw locals as well as visitors.  
Inline image 3Not sure what it is, but we liked it.  
Two months in, we are pleased to report that as a culinary exercise, Ursa Minor is a spectacular success.  The decor is unexpectedly simple, understated, elegant, soothing and comfortable, lending a space that has always been a little awkward the cleanly feel of a rural Mexican Church set for dinner, with hand-made pottery and zen-garden quality flower arrangements.  Service, led by Nova, is competent, relaxed and just warm enough.  The menu is limited, ingredients-driven, and is of a quality, creativity and originality to rank entirely it in it's own class.  All dishes are ephemeral, but every menu includes superlative preparations including an asparagus dish with morels and egg yolk, a braised brassica dish that, by flavor and smell evokes, in almost eerie detail, springtime tidelands, and rolling pork preparations that anchor the more far flung vegetable offerings.  Ursa's menu is characterized by consistent, extraordinary hits and no misses. 

Ursa's winelist is equally of a piece with the build-out and food.  Exquisitely chosen and paired, the beverage list is just right.  Our only complaint is that the list of non-alcoholic options needs a little fleshing out for the benefit of the little people.  In all things
 Nick and Nova have turned the potential liabilities of a small, startup restaurant and of Lopez Island, into great assets.  The food is Nick's alone, and not comparable to anything else, but in depth, execution and passion, Ursa Minor reminds us of early days at now-iconic restaurants like the Walrus, Art of the Table, Blaine Wetzel's arrival at The Willows or Sitka and Spruce.  However, the setting, both in terms of the building and the quiet, Island location, create an ambiance that is completely unique.  Ursa Minor is to the run of Farm-to-Table restaurants as Professor Longhair is to New Orleans music--wholly of a genre, but also, emphatically, it's own thing, and just like Professor Longhair, to go in expecting "When the Saints Go Marching In", or in this case, seared U-10 scallops and grilled king salmon with remoulade is to guarantee a shock.  Nonetheless, here is fair odds that Ursa Minor will come to define and inform a generation of San Juans cuisine in the same way that Professor Longhair now defines and informs--to the point of haunting, New Orleans musicians.
Now is the chance to experience his food and the realization of his and Nova's vision in the early days of what is clearly a raging love-affair with the Lopez Island landscape and foodshed.  It is also a chance to experience a budding, world-class culinary talent at current, more than reasonable pricing.  
Inline image 1Something Tasty buried under the forest floor...
Ursa Minor alone is worth a trip to Lopez from any departure point.  The Island offers many lodging options, from waterfront VRBO palaces at $650/nt, to the Edenwild Inn ($100-250ish/nt), a cross street away from Ursa Minor, to a sleeping bag in the hay mow at Jones Ranch (a six-pack per night).  
Until Next Time, we are your Smelt Packing, Scallop Testing, Sockeye Lusting, Crab Price Busting, Ursa Minor Dining, Six Pack Hustling, JFF Crew........