Farmed Salmon: Maybe Just a Sliver

Some folks from Oklahoma came into our Truro market last week and said they thought our local salmon sure looked good. I hated to be the one to have to break it to them, but New England hasn't had a salmon fishery for more than half a century. And Cape Cod never has.

I did recently come across a New York Times report about some "remarkably handsome" salmon landed by mackerel fishermen out of Truro. Finding salmon this far from the Connecticut and Penobscot rivers was "a subject worthy of study," it said. The article was dated May 20, 1882.

Our salmon is good. But it's not local.

For all my talk about sourcing locally, I guess I have some explaining to do.

The wild salmon we sell is from Alaska. There are many Pacific species in the Oncorhynchus genus; you've probably heard of the ones we get in the summer and fall: first Chinook, then later Coho and Sockeye.

There is only one Atlantic salmon species, Salmo salar. An almost mythical fish, salmon hatch in fresh water, then swim to sea as adults. Native to New England's rivers, adult salmon migrate as far as Greenland, feeding and growing for a year or more before returning to precisely the same tributaries they came from to breed. Scientists think they use their sense of smell to do that.

There are still wild Atlantic salmon for scientists to study. But not for us to eat. The industrial revolution with its mills along riverways critically damaged salmon breeding grounds. After that, overfishing happened quickly. Restoration projects have done some good, but commercial fishing of wild Atlantic salmon is strictly prohibited.

Atlantic salmon is farmed in many different places, from Scotland to Nova Scotia and even in the Pacific waters of western Canada. Ours is coming mostly from the Bay of Fundy right now.

Figuring out which farmed salmon to offer is a never-ending process for us. We're in the thick of it again right now. Here's how it works. (I promise I'll write more about wild salmon later on.)

We start by tasting samples. That's not always as much fun as it might seem. There's plenty of bland, flabby farmed salmon out there. We want it to be rich, with a clean, distinctly salmony flavor. Once we find something we like, Alex starts looking into everything there is to worry about with farmed salmon, like feed-to-fish ratios and pen density.

Fancypants river fishermen may have you thinking that salmon eat flies. But adult salmon are marathon-swimming animals, and big eaters. In the wild, they eat squid, herring and other small fish, and shrimp (that's where their orange color comes from). Nature has a way of balancing out competition and scarcity. But getting all that protein to farmed salmon is an issue. Alex’s first rule: "If it takes three or four pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon, we won’t buy it." Any fisherman around here will tell you it would not be a good thing for all the world's menhaden to disappear into fishmeal. Small fish are key to our fisheries.

"Salmon are piscivores," says Alex. He's okay with salmon whose diets include some grains and legumes like soy, along with fishmeal made from waste like skin and guts instead of whole wild menhaden. "But you don't want them eating feed that's got chicken or beef by-products in it––that's just weird."

When people hear that farmed salmon are not naturally orange, they think that's weird, too. It doesn't really bother Alex to know the fish gets its color by being fed carotenoids, since that's close to what happens in nature. We’re interested in certified organic salmon, since that would mean the soy in their feed was not genetically modified. But so far it's been hard to find a consistent supply at a reasonable price.

We think it’s most important to avoid fish that are given growth hormones and antibiotics. It's obvious why we wouldn't want to consume those kinds of things. And what's more, fish kept healthy by not being over-crowded shouldn't need them.

Alex reads up on all of this and then talks to the farmers. Making the direct connection, he says, gets farmers to talk about details that are never going to be described in marketing materials. When he's prepared with the right questions, he can get straight answers.

There are times we're disappointed––when salmon we think is delicious just doesn't measure up environmentally. Or it's too expensive. Or we've settled on a clear favorite, only to learn that our orders are too small to work. That's when we might have to buy from a distributor who has more buying power than we do.

But there are times we're reminded why we've not gone exclusively to wild Pacific salmon. When you meet people who are doing things right, working to farm sustainably, you want to support that. And when the salmon is good, you realize how this fish came to be so prized. It is intensely flavored, delicious like no other fish. Its fat content makes it feel good on your tongue. Alex likes it raw, but those fats (oh, and they are the "good” fats, too) make it cook up beautifully, and I really enjoy that. Either way, you wonder if you can go without it for eight months of the year.

Curing salmon is a nice way to get somewhere between raw and cooked. And the gravlax-style cure we use in our markets is easy to do. We started experimenting with gravlax when I brought a recipe back from the Manhattan Ocean Club almost 15 years ago. Now we're reviving our favorite flavor combination––dill, mint, peppercorns, and gin––for the holidays ahead.

You need to let the fish cure for a day or two, but you don't really have to dedicate more than about ten minutes of your time to the project. Salt and sugar are natural preservatives that change the texture of the salmon, drawing out water and firming it up, but more gently than cooking does. Mint and dill give it a fresh, herby aroma. You end up with richness and flavor that go a long way––satisfying even if you eat just a sliver. We do believe in conservation, after all.

Home Cured Salmon with Mint & Dill

Serves at least 12, enough for 20 or more as part of a big spread

One 3 to 4 pound salmon fillet
1 cup kosher salt (we like the texture of Diamond Crystal brand best)
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons gin
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 big bunch of dill, minced (to come to about two cups)
1 bunch of mint, minced (about one cup minced leaves)

Feel along the center of the fillet for the pin bones––they tend to stay in the fish after it's been filleted. If you find a row of them, pull them out with a sturdy pair of tweezers or small pliers.

Put the fillet, skin side down, on a piece of plastic wrap and set it in a glass or ceramic baking dish. Drizzle on the gin. (If you don't have a dish big enough to hold the whole fillet, you can cut it in half, dress and wrap the two halves, and stack them for curing.)

In a bowl, combine the salt, sugar and herbs, then heap it all on the flesh side of the fish. Sprinkle on the peppercorns and pat them into the cure. It should cover the fish evenly.

Fold the plastic wrap over the top and let the fish cure in the refrigerator for just under two days (36 to 40 hours is just right. When we let it go for 48 hours it gets a little firmer and saltier than we like). Here's mine, two wrapped halves, ready to go in the fridge:

Remove the salmon from the cure, gently scraping off any bits of undissolved sugar-salt-herb mixture, and pat the fillet dry. Slice the fillet right down to the skin, but not through it, angling the knife a little so that, slice by slice, you end up skinning the fillet, leaving the skin on your board or platter. Serve thin slices on buttered rounds of good baguette or rye bread. A dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of minced red onion or chives is nice, too.

No need to eat this all at once. The gravlax can be kept in the fridge for several days once you've removed the cure.

Posted in  Fishermen & Farmers  Recipes

Tagged  sustainable

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Ed Miller says:

Dec 01, 2011 at 03:54 AM

Thanks, Mac and Alex, for keeping the growth hormones and antibiotics out of your fish case.  I like knowing where my hormones come from.

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