Blood-Red Bluefin: The New Ortolan?

By Corby Kummer
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In a typically well-written review of Paul Greenberg's new Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food—a book anyone who cares about sustainability and fish needs to read, as he points out and as I think, too—Sam Sifton writes about eating fresh-killed bluefin tuna a friend drove in bearing after he caught it off the New Jersey coast. Sifton, who had just spent his first months eating his way through New York's finest tables as the paper's restaurant critic, writes of the intense pleasure and transgressive thrill mixed with guilt and shame he felt eating it fresh and raw. It's the feeling people reserve (when writing about food, at least) for ortolan, the endangered and forbidden European songbird that, swallowed whole, head and all, sometimes while the diner is blindfolded, that has been a staple of la vie Parisienne (where food and sex have always, need I point out, been intermingled):

Nothing I had eaten that summer and fall prepared me for the taste of this tuna that late afternoon, for the intense blast of flavor and rich, creamy fattiness ... not yet four hours old ... In a bite of that absolutely fresh tuna from New Jersey, I experienced a taste of truly wild food, a majestic flavor, something incredibly rare.

And as it melted on my tongue and receded into memory, I felt guilt and doubt and fear.

I've often wondered what a true Atlantic wild salmon would taste like, imagining I would feel the same combination of emotions knowing how fragile and tentative have been the attempts to restock the rivers of the Northeast, the rivers that once overflowed with salmon before overfishing obliterated them. Fortunately, I suppose, no fishing friend has ever driven toward my house, as Sifton's bluefin-bearing friend drove to his, with wild Atlantic salmon in the trunk. So I adhere to the just-say-no rule regarding bluefin sushi that Trevor Corson sensibly laid out in our pages. And I stick to my longtime rule summarized on a bumper sticker I saw on a visit a few years ago to Cordova, home of the Copper River fishing fleet and processors that have brought brand recognition to their salmon: FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS EAT FARMED FISH.

Barry Estabrook, as it happens, just went on a similar trip, and considers the implications the success of the branding effort can have for other fisheries—as also struck me when I went. He found, as I did, that everybody stays on message in Cordova:

"I don't think it's an overstatement to say that we have the best sockeye salmon in the world," Jim Kallander, one of those fishermen, who is now the mayor of Cordova, told me over a dinner of—I really don't need to tell you, do I?

And he met a number of the same memorable characters I did, including Thea Singer, a careful fisherwoman who brought Barry out on her boat and showed him a careful way of using gill nets he hadn't seen, a way that fishermen who don't get a premium price for their fish don't have time for:

I'd been on salmon gillnetters before, so I had a few preconceptions of what might happen next—fish violently shaken from the net onto the deck, getting kicked around and stepped on before being tossed like so many chunks of stove wood into a plastic container, piling on top of each other by the hundreds and with no ice to keep them cold. So I was surprised to see Thomas extract her salmon from the net individually, sever their gills so that they bled cleanly and quickly, then immediately place then in a slurry of ice chips and seawater.

It's the kind of care that Aleutia, a salmon-fishery cooperative aiming for the same kind of care and premiums but in the Aleutian islands, is requiring of its members—as we saw on our recent Alaskan expedition to Sand Point, an all-business fishing village with none of the hippieish charm of Cordova.

Now, for the next three months, enjoy a food that is, as Barry says, "sustainably managed and wild, unlike environmentally damaging (and off-tasting) farmed salmon." Take the implied advice of the boosterish Kallender and order sockeye over king, which I think has far better, and far wilder, flavor. And, as Sifton is likely to do and particularly after reading Greenberg's good book, save your transgressive thrills for non-food adventures.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/08/blood-red-bluefin-the-new-ortolan/60754/