Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pantagonian toothfish, anyone?

For a small institution not yet even 50 years old, Hampshire College has produced some remarkable graduates over the years. I've had the pleasure of knowing and working with quite a few of them, most notably Gary Hirshberg, one of the co-founders of Stonyfield Yogurt and Josh Goldman who is featured in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine article that follows. These two gentlemen have made extraordinary contributions to sustainable food production. The college's emphasis on multidisciplinary learning and honoring each student's curiosity seems to pay off.

When I served as Massachusetts' commissioner of food and agriculture I took John Phillips, my counterpart with the state division of fish and wildlife, to visit Josh at AquaFuture -- an innovative aquaculture company he founded and was running at the time. John is an avid fisherman a connoisseur of fish. We had some AquaFuture-produced stripe bass for lunch. John said it was some of the best he'd ever eaten. I considered that to be a pretty good endorsement.

Given the state of the oceans and the fishing industry, it's likely that in the not-too-distant future, most of the fish we eat will be harvested from farms like the one Josh has developed. (GW)

The Next Big Fish

Chilean sea bass was the first celebrity fish - until we nearly ate it all. How far do we have to go to find its successor? Just near the Berkshires, actually.

This is a story of two fish.

It is an old tale of the price of fame. It is both comedy and tragedy. It begins with a South American dictator. It's a story of plucky fishermen pushed out to sea and into peril. It even has pirates. But, mostly, it is the story of one fish that spent hundreds of placid centuries inoffensively cruising the deepest, coldest waters of the southern sea, down where the great primal engine of the Humboldt Current drives the waters of Antarctica into the southern Pacific, a fish that became so popular that it was sold into virtual extinction. Once upon a time, there was a fish that died of marketing.

More than 30 years ago, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in a frenzy of deregulation, threw open his country's territorial waters to foreign factory fishing, which not only decimated the local supplies of cod and hake – the fatty, versatile whitefish that are the staples of seafood restaurants everywhere – but also sent Chilean fishermen into deeper and more dangerous waters. Soon, from depths that exceeded 5,000 feet, they began hauling up the Patagonian toothfish, an enormous, hideous creature that had evolved in ways that made it a nearly perfect replacement for the species that had been devastated by factory fishing. For example, because it lacked a swim bladder, the fish had developed a method of using fats secreted directly into its tissues as a means of flotation. Its body was almost all white flesh. The fish was nearly pure foodstuff. All it needed was a spiffy nom de cuisine. Nobody ever would have taken a bite out of something called the Patagonian toothfish. And thus, in 1977, was born the product known as Chilean sea bass.

“It was just this sort of junk fish that they brought up from the depths,” explains Lydia Bergen, the manager of the Sustainable Fisheries Initiative at the New England Aquarium. “The white flesh is really appealing to the US palate. It's not very fishy flavored, but it's oily, so there's almost no way you can overcook it.” Its popularity exploded throughout the 1990s. Around the world, but especially in this country, chefs loved the versatility of the Chilean sea bass. They served it up grilled, broiled, blackened, and steamed to a public that couldn't get enough of it, so much so that unscrupulous chefs began to serve things like black cod under an assumed species. By the end of the decade, Chilean sea bass was the most popular fish in the world. And that was the worst thing that ever happened to it. Once its name was changed, its fate was sealed. And thus did a species perish, the first one ever to die of a brand name.

And then, once upon a time – and a very recent time it was – there was another fish, and this is the happy story of The Next Big Fish, one that has quietly begun appearing on the menus of 25 restaurants in the Boston area alone, including the Legal Sea Foods, Naked Fish, and Skipjack's chains, as well as at the Ritz-Carlton. “It's an interesting fish. It's one of the first farmed white-flesh fish, and it tastes pretty good,” says Legal Sea Foods owner Roger Berkowitz. “I have a preference for wild [fish], but Australia's the only place where they eat this fish wild. A few months ago, we started playing around with it.” The Next Big Fish has already started appearing on Legal's menu, but Berkowitz says he needs the fish to be grown bigger for the restaurant to use it more regularly. “We haven't been able to get enough product of the size we want so far – 4 pounds or bigger – and so we're working with them on that.” By 2007, 40,000 pounds of The Next Big Fish is expected to be shipped each week out to a world that is, well, hungry for it, that is looking, always, for the next big thing, and that usually finds it in the damndest places.

Places like the remotest parts of Australia, say, or the peaceful slopes of the Connecticut River Valley in Western Massachusetts. The autumn light is sharper here, honing itself between the peaks and whetting itself through the branches of the trees until it falls into the swales and valleys in shards as hard as diamonds on the eyes. It comes in bursts as the roads narrow and the towns get smaller, and you have to wait to cross the bridge that leads into Turners Falls so that the bread truck can pass over it first. Across the bridge, then, and through the small-business district, all weathered brick and old handbills, and then off through the trees and the hills again, off through the sharp and glistening light toward where the cutting edge is.

The tanks are round and deep, and they're tucked away under a flat white roof in an industrial park that surrounds the tiny airport, not far from where townspeople say Bill Cosby parks his private aircraft – which is hopefully not called The Pudding Pop. The water in the tanks moves in a constant circular motion, and there is only the faintest stirring beneath the surface until someone takes a small, foul-smelling pellet and tosses it low across the water. There is a sudden, silvery explosion, a loud snap of jaws, and a splash, and then the surface goes flat and still and silent again.

“I'm kind of in love with this fish,” says Josh Goldman, who runs the complex and who has brought the cutting edge to this unlikely place in the valley where The Cos parks his ride. “It does so much of what I am trying to achieve.” The barramundi – which means “fish with big scales” in an aboriginal dialect, or Lates calcarifer, if you're speaking Latin at home – was until very recently merely a feisty game fish hanging on the den walls of people who fish the remote Northern Territory of Australia. An admittedly ugly perch-looking creature, the barramundi is yet another product of the freakish isolation in which animals in Australia evolved. For example, it spawns in the ocean, but it moves easily through the brackish coastal waters and into the long inland stretches of freshwater streams and rivers. Aussie fisherfolk spend good money in pursuit of the barramundi, reeling in specimens in excess of 33 pounds. It also has become the whitefish of choice in Australian restaurants, from fish houses all the way up the scale to what the people in the eating industry call “white-tablecloth restaurants.” In short, it's their cod, and, like the koala and the kangaroo and Aussie-rules football, the “barra” has become one of those unique local phenomena in which Australians take a peculiar provincial pride.

Which only begins to explain how the barramundi came to Western Mass., and how it is very soon going to be coming onto your plate – if it's not already there. It seems that the barramundi is a fish for all seasons. It tastes great, and it's rich in omega-3s, those fishy proteins that are so good for the human brain and the human heart. Moreover, the barramundi turns out to be something of a natural environmental activist, nurtured without antibiotics or hormones in its innate scaly Greenhood by people who went looking for the cutting edge and who brought it to the most unlikely place in order to unleash The Next Big Fish, tasty, healthy, and blessedly guilt-free, on the rest of the world.

Click here to read the entire Boston Sunday Magazine story.


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