I learned two shocking lessons from my menu planning this week, both concerning salmon.
Spring is the time to have salmon on the menu. The famous Copper River Kings are running, but I am more interested in salmon from closer to home. Local Washington Troll and River Kings are new to the market too, and are usually a fraction of the price. Coppers can be been laughably expensive; I saw them in the fish case at Central Market last year for $75 per pound. I had to wonder who was buying those fish, great PR or not. I was expecting the price of Coppers to be in the stratosphere so I wasn’t even considering putting them on the menu because of their price.
I assumed that first-run Washington Troll Kings would be a bit pricey too, and the River fish would be quite a bit less expensive. I was planning to buy the Trolls because that has always been my preference. That preference was confirmed last year, at the end of summer, when I put salmon on the menu only to find the Trolls season had passed. All I could get were river run, late season Columbia River Kings. Those fish were a huge disappointment; the fish were gun metal grey rather than bright silver, and the flesh was pale and opaque, with a noticeable muddiness in flavor.
My preference for Troll Kings has precedent; when the ocean run salmon hit fresh water they begin a dramatic transformation as they head up river to spawn. Troll fish, which are caught off the coast, by trawlers dragging individual hooks. Those fish are handled with great care, hand bleed by the fishermen on the ship, and iced immediately. Thus the reputation for high quality. They tend to be the brightest in exterior color and have a firm, bright red, luminous flesh.
The transformation the fish undergo when they come in from the sea to find their river means they darken in color and their flesh begins to break down. They are returning to fresh water for the first time since they left to go out to sea. At this time they stop eating and will eventually nearly disintegrate before they spawn and die. This is the end game for the fish; they are essentially in the process of dying.
When I got the first price quote for Washington Troll & River Salmon from my purveyor of choice, it seemed so unexpectedly high I immediately checked the price with a second purveyors. They confirm what seemed like a crazy price: Troll and River fish had almost the same astronomical price: about $20 per pound for whole fish. Coppers seemed downright affordable at $36 per pound!
It is important to note that these are Whole Fish prices, in other words, fish that has been gutted and gills removed, but the head still attached. When I filet, trim and remove the pin bones I’m going to lose 40% of that fish to waste (and I do a better than average job of butchering fish). That means a 6 oz. portion costs me about $13.12. Based on typical restaurant pricing, if I want to maintain a food cost of 30% (remember I have to pay for the labor, the heat, the water, the china and everything else that goes into getting the food to the table. The food is supposed to be no more than 30% of my cost. That's the industry standard) I would have to charge $43.75 for a 6oz. portion… for just the fish without anything to accompany it, like the organic asparagus and the butter for the Hollandaise, etc..
The pricing for these early wild salmon is not going down anytime soon. It is literally four times the price of the same fish a decade ago. Can you think of another type of food that is increasing in price as quickly and consistently as wild fish? I can’t. And here’s why: because the quotas of what is available to catch is going down and down, 50% per year the last two years. Because the demand for pristine, wild seafood is growing greatly in Asia, driven to a great extent by a ballooning Chinese middle class that wants good, wild-sourced food. Because there aren’t enough salmon. The Orca are literally starving because of the loss of salmon. Both Orca and Chinook salmon are on their way to endangered species status, and there is no clear way back; most of the problem with declines in salmon runs isn’t dams; it’s non-point source pollution and too many cars and houses with sea walls on the waters of Puget Sound and beyond.
I have been saying for years now that wild fish was going to become exotic in our lifetimes. Well, it has happened.
Growing up working in a restaurant on Whidbey I remember how poorly we treated salmon in the early 1980’s. We got in huge wet-lock totes full of whole fish, threw them into big plastic garbage bags, tied off the ends and stacked them in the walk-in freezer like cord wood. Salmon and halibut were both treated the same way: with very little care or respect. For most of the year we would pull the poorly frozen fish out of the freezer, thaw them badly, often in running water, and then over cook the hell out of the poor fish. The final product was dry as asbestos and about as delicious. I swore as a 20-year-old that I would never, ever put salmon on my menu. It was awful.
25 years of perspective shows me a lot. First it has taught me how to care for the fish we receive. If we use frozen fish, there is excellent frozen salmon available and we thaw it very slowly, in the refrigerator. We cook salmon at low temperatures, like sous vide or slow roasting.
I did learn something this week about the value of Spring River Salmon. The lesson came from a fishmonger by the name of Nick Jones of Jones Family Farm on Lopez Island. I met Nick because he has locally diver harvested Pink Singing Scallops. That reason alone was enough, but Nick has also cultivated relationships with many fishermen and women in the past 20 years and has great relationships with the local tribal fishermen.
Today Nick convinced me to buy River salmon over Troll salmon. That’s a big deal to me!
As I was reviewing my options for local fish I asked one of Nick Jones’s partners at Mikuni Wild Harvest why it was that the price of the river fish was basically the same as the Trolls. He told me that, according to Nick, there was a difference between Spring River King and Fall River King. Springers, as Nick called them. They are fattier and had a more fully developed flavor that Trolls just could not match. True, they had reached fresh water and had stopped eating, but Springers were as loaded with fuel (fish oil) as they would ever be. This is the important part: they had stopped growing and were waiting to head up stream. Furthermore, where Trolls had the reputation for having been handled better on the boat, bled on deck and immediately iced, the best fishermen in the Washington River fisheries like Skagit, Quinault and Quiliut were now matching those practices. No longer were the local river runs caught in nets that were only sporadically checked - resulting in dead and beat up gill-netted fish being pulled from the water - or being thrown onto the deck of the boats to swelter and bloat in the warm. Now, probably because of the high dollar well-treated fish can command, these fishermen had upped their game, treating the river fish in much the same way as the Trolls.
Nick is a good salesman and I trust him. I ordered the river fish for this weekend. Nick also suggested we do an event at Orchard Kitchen with a side-by-side of Troll and River fish to see which ones we and our guest prefer. Stay tuned for that.