Ask Us Where Your Fish Comes From
November 04, 2011
This picture of our friend Andrew Cummings, a Wellfleet shellfisherman who supplies a good many of our oysters, got me thinking about how we really ought to take on the seafood fraud problem in this country: Forget about whether your fillet has had a DNA test. What's the chemistry between the people who harvest your fish and those who sell it to you?
At least for those of us who catch, prepare, and eat seafood in New England, it ought to be really good. As Alex pointed out to the folks at Talking Fish earlier this week, we have the advantage of being near the source. Our mission is to do right by that.
Even so, after the recent news about fraud in the fishing business, I've heard from customers whose sense of trust is shaken. They've heard us say, "Know where your fish comes from," but now they're wondering what that really means.
It means, for one thing, that we actually do know where our fish comes from. Pretty much down to the fisherman.
Take Andrew. We can––and do––actually watch him at work on the estuaries not far from the sandy beach at Mac's on the Pier in Wellfleet.
We've listened to Andrew plenty too, as he's gone through years of deepening his knowledge of healthy oyster cultivation. He's told us when they're spawning and when they're fat. He's shown us how he separates the growing clumps of shells to make each bivalve grow sturdier. He has, on occasion, pointed to holes made by oyster drills that can suck away an oysterman's livelihood.
We've eaten a few oysters with Andrew. When he shucks, he always turns the oyster over in its shell just before he hands it to you, a move I tend to forget when I'm at the raw bar. But he's right: the flipside stands high and round in the shell––it's the oyster's best.
Andrew can talk about "terroir," though I'm not sure he can really taste the difference between the oysters he grows on the flats near us and the ones he grows in deep water a mile over, near Egg Island.
The man works hard. He knows his stuff. He knows how to eat. We have something with Andrew that business school books might call "shared values." We call it trust. And it's not the blind kind.
There have been a lot of calls for more regulation of seafood since the Boston Globe published its disheartening findings of widespread fraud in the business. But let's face it, no amount of regulation will ensure the real traceability and quality that comes with this kind of relationship, built as it is on knowledge and appreciation of the product and its provenance.
The Globe printed our letter to the editor, which explained the importance of being able to look our fishermen in the eye. But they didn't really buy it. The next day, they called for "the clout and resources of the FDA and the National Marine Fisheries Service" to prevent fraud.
Don't get me wrong. There are regulations we believe in and follow because we think they're important. We support fishing quotas because we know things are different from what they were a generation ago. And we think they are already proving important to restoring stocks. We're HACCP certified, which means we use the FDAs strict food safety system for monitoring all the fish we handle.
But there's something missing in all the clamoring for new rules. Liars and cheats are bad. But they are mere bottom-feeders in a seafood industry whose supply chain has grown way too long. The goal has got to be for all of us to get closer to the source.
We source from many others besides Andrew. And I'm determined to tell you about more our fishermen and women over the coming months. Meantime, there are a couple of things I wish everyone knew about where our fish comes from:
We do not ever buy fish from huge corporations. Instead, we buy from fishing families we can relate to directly. Doing this is a little like signing up for a "CSA" (Community Supported Agriculture). It means we get top-quality, super-fresh fish. But it also means we have to learn to roll with the changes each season brings: we can't just cherry-pick only the most popular fish. Alex explains this in greater detail in the interview in Talking Fish I mentioned earlier. I hope you'll have a look.
And almost everything we buy comes to us whole. In fact, it drives Alex crazy to hear about fish buyers needing DNA tests to tell a cod from a haddock. That just seems shocking to someone who knows them as animals, literally, of different stripes.
It's true not everyone on our team has spent as much time around fish as Alex has. We really do want you to ask us where our fish is coming from, and we want the people who are serving you to know the answers. To get there, we'll have to become better teachers. I'm thinking now about how to help everyone on our staff know as much as they can about what makes the seafood they're working with every day something truly awesome.
From there, we're one step closer to introducing all of our customers to some of the great privileges of being so close to the source. There are Andrew's oysters, of course. Barbara's clams. There's the cod our spit of land is named for. And there's so much more. Like Alex told Talking Fish: "Yes, the cod out here is fantastic, but so is the pollock, the hake, the mackerel and the squid."
This Sunday, November 6th, Alex is teaching a fish filleting class at our market in Truro Center. Come join us, there from 12 noon to on o'clock.
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