Sunday, April 12, 2009

Something is Fishy.....

A real journalist finds a lead on a story, tracks down each, every and all aspects and facts to nail down some objective truth....and in the process increases both the knowledge and quality of the human experience.

Real journalists are as rare as white rhinos these days. Mary B. from the Pine Cone.....Kera A. from Coast Weekly spring to mind. They actually still get paychecks for being consummate professionals....though even then there are second jobs supporting their true vocation and calling. "Have you tried the new Sleepy Hollow chardonnay?......."

Dummies like me are at least partly responsible. You could right now be checking out Mary's or Kera's work right now instead of reading this amateur stuff.....and possibly generating some clicks and revenue for their bosses who might be therefore encouraged to keep them on the payroll.

God forbid they should get a raise.....

Anyway, I am on about the fish. I have neither time, funds, nor energy to chase this story to its logical and meaningful end....but you might be interested.

A couple of years ago we in the kitchen at The Store decided to focus on local and seasonal food suppliers. We are Republicans......really. Well, Irish Republicans. We don't give a shit about nuking the gay whales.....but even so it seemed insane to be flying in asparagus from Peru in October and November when there was drop-dead gorgeous chard, kale.....even Roman beans....to be had from local suppliers.

And, the philosophy appealed to our sense of professionalism. Think of it as Iron Chef.....Earth. Instead of some Asian dipshit challenging two chefs to make miracles out of say, coffee beans in an hour under intense video scrutiny.......we used Mama Nature and whatever she had in her winter larder.....and we have three months, not an hour.

Unfortunately....instead of some dipshit Asian faux-sensei to challenge us......we have our clients. Nobody wants kale and chard, and you can maybe get away with butternut squash/apple bisque once a season….and sell six bowls.

Squash pasta and ravioli have longer legs......but even so, they are both a hard sell, and a pain in the ass to make for more than eight people.

When it comes to the ocean.....it is even worse. Everyone wants salmon.....or halibut. Actually, they really want Chilean Sea Bass…..but fuck you anyway. And….sorry about the salmon....and halibut season closes in the winter. Scallops, anyone?

Meanwhile we have mountains of sardines, mackerel, anchovies, sea urchins and market squid piling up on the wharves.....and filling the nooks and crannies of the fleets of cargo ships that are otherwise returning empty to China.

Nobody here buys that shit. We buy fresh local sardines for 85 cents a pound, along with the Filipina and Chinese grandmothers. Commercially, the sardine fishermen get 50 bucks a ton....and it all goes for fish food, cow food, or fertilizer.

One of Brendan's best dishes is his Bocadillo of Monterey Sardine with Mojito Aioli. Basically a fried sardine sandwich with lime/mint mayonnaise. I have to beat people to even try the thing at cocktail parties....for free! And it rocks the house!

OK.....everyone reading this has been to Cannery Row. Many of you have even read the book (except for everyone from Carmel High), or saw the terrible movie with Debra Winger and that drunk guy who crashes motorcycles. All of you have been to the Aquarium....and seen first hand the desolation of a once thriving business and culture....due to human greed, overfishing and the righteous anger of Mother Nature and man's failings.

"Fuck with my fish? Fuck you!" says Mama N.

Everyone knows the Italians killed off all the sardines....and replaced them with crappy restaurants, gift shops and rapacious parking meters. Right?

OK. Trivia question: What percentage do sardines have today of the total landed (i.e. "caught and sold") tonnage of fish by California fishermen?

a) 1%
b) 10%
c) 20%
d) 30%
e) none of the above

Second question:

What is California’s single most valuable fishery crop?

a) Salmon

b) Dungeness Crab

c) Tuna

d) Lobster

e) Sea Urchins


Well....to the first question the answer is e). California fishermen landed 178,477,060 pounds of sardines in 2007......46% of the total fish harvest for the year. HALF! If you throw in the 23 million pounds of anchovies it goes to 52%.

The "failure" of Cannery Row was not a failure of the fish crop, or overfishing.....it was a failure of marketing.

In WWII, there was no protein anyone could afford. Beef? Forget it. Sardines are cheap and outrageously good for you. They were the bomb while the bombs were falling.....but with prosperity no one wanted oily little fish in cans.....Not even when Dr. Dean Edell tells everyone that the Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids running all through the sardine will swell both your brain and your pecker.

My friend Dr. Chris at Moss Landing Marine Labs went out on a limb and bought a head-and-tail machine to filet incoming sardines and anchovies and cryo-vac them in packages for restaurants. The theory is that stimulating restaurant demand might raise the fisherman's price about $150 a ton....reduce the financial pressure to catch tons and tons.....and save fishery from falling back down the Cannery Row hole.

Chris went way out on a limb to do this. Non-profit spending $50k to package sardines for people who would rather put the stuff on their roses?......I am not sure how that is going, but we wish him the best.....

And I don't see sardines anywhere on any menus but at my place, probably Mundaka, and John Pisto's places. Well, Contigo, of course (www.inpraiseofsardines.com)


Back to the facts:

In 2007, California landed 383, 413, 715 pounds of fish....total.

Everyone is freaking out about the destruction of the salmon fishery....and rightly so. Still, salmon accounted for .4% of the catch two years ago. Even at their best, our pink cousins never amounted to more than 2% of the California fish harvest. They are cute, very easy to cook…..and they do get license-holding firemen, tractor drivers and cardiologists out of the house on weekends during the summer....leaving the home field open for the pool boy, god love him.

Now, let's talk squid. Squid is our second biggest crop....running about a hundred million pounds, and 28% of all fish caught in Cali. Some years it is half the crop, and blows doors off the sardine brothers.

Squid is still the Wild West of fishing.....no government regulations....no licenses, no nothing. Fucking go for it, dudes.

Believe it or not, in the rest of the world, California market squid are famous and highly desired. They are sweet, succulent, and easy to cook. Not to mention nutritious.

99% of the crop is exported.


This past Monday morning I stood in the window of a mansion in Pebble Beach getting breakfast ready for some CEO's. The JP Morgan guy...the Home Depot guy.....a retired serious banking guy. They all play golf with George Bush....and they all think he is an idiot.

Off shore was a bright light in the water. A calamari boat. It is still 5:30 am and dark as shit.

(My clients are up early because the markets open at 6am our time. These guys may make 500 times their workers wages....but they understand the 16 hour day. Only difference is their world has more gin and less methamphetamines than mine. About the same amount of Vicodin, though....from where I sit. And way better clothes and cars. They, however are forced to play golf. I am forced to turn compost. I’ll take the compost.)

My boss....the banking guy says: "What is that guy fishing for out there?"

"Squid."

"Can we get some for tonight? That would be fun....to serve some food caught right off of Cypress Point to Cypress Point guests."

(Be still my heart....CEO localvore in the making......Baby Jesus, hear my prayers....)

So.....when the sun comes up and the financial markets open in New York, I call Buster at Monterey Fish. Buster's mom and grandma worked in the canneries, cutting the sardines that Buster's dad and grandpa caught.

"Buster, I am looking at a calamari boat here. Save me five or ten pounds of fresh stuff for tonight, and see if you can get me some ink."

"Whaddaya talkin’ about?...We ain't got no fresh calamari. I got some Mexican here. Five pounds frozen. Nice filets."

"Buster.....I am looking at the fucking boat. When it comes in, grab me a few pounds before it all gets packed....."

"Mike....it all gets packed on the boat. They have a freezer in the hold. They freeze the catch in big blocks. When they get to us, they load it on trucks and send it up to Oakland. It goes on ships to China where they process it. We don't get any fresh calamari. Well, once in a while...."

I have called every day for the last 60 days. We have found fresh local calamari twice.

Everything else gets shipped to China in giant frozen blocks, where it is thawed, cleaned and cut by Chinese women with no health insurance and really shitty lives, packed into five pound boxes that say "Monterey Fish, Monterey, CA.....Product of USA....." and shipped back across the ocean.

Don't talk to me about sardines. Nobody buys either of these things…..except local Chinese women with really shitty lives….because they can’t get work!

I made up the shitty life part. What is so shitty? They can buy great, fresh sardines and squid for a buck a pound or less…..and sautée it all up with some nice chard or kale….

Moving on…..

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am obsessed with Spain, and especially Basque Country….and especially San Sebastian. And some Barcelona thrown in there.

Catalan and Basque food is the best in the world right now……technically and esthetically at least ten years ahead of everyone else….and fifty years ahead of the French, Swiss and Germans who are still convinced that they are right about everything.

There were political and economic reasons for the resurgence of Basque and Catalan food which I find fascinating but which would bore the pants off you.

The main driving force behind the culinary giant leap forward was…..

Starvation.

Spain was supposedly independent during WWII….though the Germans were given full rein by the Spanish government and the Catholic church during the Spanish Civil war in 1936 to practice certain delightful things like bombing refugees, bombing civilian populations, concentration camps, reprisal murders of civilians, torture, rendition….things like that.

The resultant wholesale destruction of the country and infrastructure, and the isolation of the war led to wholesale starvation….and it didn’t go away with the end of the war. Chefs just a few years older than me remember starving….and watching relatives die of starvation.

Consequently….Basques….and Catalans…..eat everything. Every flower, bush, fungus, bug, and bird is fair game. In the ocean….they eat every one of the dozen different prawns, and every mollusk, barnacle, and weird scary thing floating in the sea or crawling on the edge of it.

Starvation in the land of plenty somehow did not destroy their creative spirit or their sense of humor….Basques have elevated some of these strange creatures to high art.

For example....here is my friend Bittor's version of woodcock. Woodcock looks like those seabirds that run around the beach....with the long beaks.


And the anatomically correct version, up close. Bittor uses a surgical laser cutter to split the bird exactly in half.....so you can suck the brains, etc.

And here is Amanda in Bar Ganbara in Donostia....contemplating a huge pile of every fungus in the woods on the mountain......and the persebbe.

Persebbe. Gooseneck barnacles…which cover every rock and tidepool in Monterey and Big Sur.

Fine eating.

Well, in Spain.

One of my favorite moments in bars in Spain....or bars anywhere, for that matter...... was at Bar Ganbara in Donostia...pictured above with Amanda staring at the huge pile of random mushrooms....and some strange rock shellfish.

We ordered the persebbe....which immediately separated us from all the tourists....and, sadly....90% of the young Spaniards at the packed and crazy bar. As we dug into our plate of barnacles I looked up....and looked into the eyes of a woman of a certain age, decked out in furs. She also had the persebbe.....and she was clearly from the generation that HAD to eat them....and now enjoyed eating them. She gave me a huge wink that warmed me to my core.....

Sea urchins….no surprise there. The Japanese and Italians are also all over these. Ricci in Italian….makes awesome ravioli. Just don’t tell the Yanks what they are eating.California fishermen collect more than 11,000,000 pounds of sea urchins every year. 99% are exported.

Answer to Question 2 above?

Sea urchins.

These we bought on the street in Caideques....Salvador Dali's home town.

In California squid and sardines go for pennies a pound…..sea urchins for dollars. Only you white folks don't buy them...they are all shipped out.

Sea cucumbers…..Again the Japanese are all over this. The Spanish bring sea cucumbers to high art….espardenyas. Better than abalone. Way better than abalone....but serious ugly, and they don't just lay there to be yanked off rocks....

Here is Bittor's (Victor) version from Extebarre in Axpe, Spain. Roasted over one of the 14 different charcoals Bittor makes from the hardwood trees he grows in his Spanish Alpine valley.

Here is Rafa's version....from Roses on the East Coast....a few kilometers from El Bulli...and not far from Caidueques...

California fisherman also pull in a half million pounds of sea cucumber….the same as the amount of lobsters we harvest. 100% of the sea cucumber is exported, obviously. Ever had sea cucumber?

Anyway….as I said at the beginning of this rant, I have no idea where to go with it.

Once again, we Americans….and we Californians in particular….live in this land of plenty and take advantage of very little of it.

My old friend Carl Sagan used to say over and over that we only use about 10% of our brain power. Carl claimed that we all have stored in 3D, SurroundSound, HD video with SmelloVision every experience of our lives….we just are to primitive to access the data.

Same seems to apply to our palates……

3 Comments:

Blogger toots said...

most excellent post. forwarding to every restaurant in SLO I can find a link to. Love sardines!!

thanks for yesterday's as well. untwisting knickers.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Annelise Kelly said...

Wow... lots of good information, delivered unequivocally. Never would have guessed about the sea urchin. Good on you. And I've been to Phil's only once in the last decade or so, and had sardines there--they were tasty, but of course did not appeal to everyone at the table. Anyway, I'd love to stow away on your next trip to the Basque country.

11:02 PM  
Blogger slh said...

I hear that there are percebes growing wild here in California, but that there are few people who know how to harvest them, which is why we hardly ever see this incredible delicacy. Please please tell me if there is anywhere that serves or anyone who sells freshies along the central coast. SH

3:25 PM  

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