Thursday, May 26th, 2011 | posted by mike
Of all the amazing, wonderful, and delicious fish that we’re still fortunate enough to harvest from the wilds of the seas, the Pacific salmons are way up there as the closest thing to nature’s perfect food, full of flavor, goodness, and Omega 3 fatty acids. Out of all the salmons from California to Alaska there is one that stands out as the King, the Copper River King Salmon!
What makes these fish so special? Why would they be better than any other wild king salmon you might ask? The answer is in the river, the diet, the handling, and John Rowley. John Rowley? (I’ll get to John later).
The Copper River is 300 miles long. The salmon that return to spawn have a long journey ahead of them swimming against up to 10 miles-an-hour currents. In order for these fish to make it up river to spawn, they have to be big and strong with lots of fat (good fat) reserves. Copper River Kings have some of the highest fat content of any salmon, this is the Omega 3 rich fat that gives them such great buttery texture and flavor. They feed heavily on a variety of fatty bait fish and shrimp, the crustacean part of their diet helps give them that amazing bright reddish orange color. The fisherman handle their precious catch with great care. They bleed them, ice them, and get them to market in the lower 48, and around the world, often within 24 hours from when they were caught.
Up until 1983 these incredible fish weren’t treated with the regal respect that they now command. The vast majority of the fish landed were delivered uniced, loaded onto Tenders (larger boats that off-loaded the fisherman’s catch) and sent off to the canneries.
This is were John Rowley comes in. Who is this guy? I had the privilege to meet him at Zingerman’s Roadhouse a few years back. Saveur magazine named him a “disciple of flavor” in their 2008 Top 100 favorite people, places and things. Julia Child called him a fish missionary. John’s background with food and the sea goes back to his childhood in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Combing tidal pools, catching and cooking fish and shellfish at an early age helped hone his remarkable sense of taste. He worked in lots of seafood-related jobs and was an Alaskan fisherman for 10 years while spending summers in Europe. So here’s a man who knows what a perfect pristine fish right out of the water looks like. During his time in Spain, France, Portugal, and Norway he would ask himself ,”why does the fish here look and taste so much better than in the states?” The answer, he learned, was in proper handling. Many European fisherman went out on shorter trips and instead of dumping tons of fish into the holds with little ice, the fish were bled and layered in ice in small tubs (the same ones we use at our market). John came home enlightened and has since, as a consultant, helped change our industry.
At Fish Expo 1982 John was having a conversation with a couple of Copper River salmon fisherman. John was well aware of the incredible fish from this run and suggested that maybe they try something different. Instead of dumping these beauties at the Tenders, try bleeeding, icing, handling with care and transporting in tubs so that the fish won’t bruise. This way instead of being paid pennies a pound for their catch maybe they’ll be paid dollars a pound. Being fisherman and set in their ways they did not at first warm up to the idea, but by the spring run of 1983 they had changed their minds and decided to give it a go. They sent 300 lbs. of kings to John in Seattle where he distributed them around to local chefs. I know exactly what their reaction must have been when they first laid their eyes and hands on these georgeous fish. Imagine a 30 to 50 lb. fish so fresh (hours out of the water), so plump and just dripping with fat! You can just feel the fat in your fingers as you rub your hand over the skin. It wasn’t long before this fish that we once bought in a can and used to make salads became the world famous fish that it is today.
We have to give thanks to the Copper River fishermen and the state of Alaska for its amazing job of conservation and management, and of course John Rowley.
We’re hoping to see Copper River kings this Memorial Day weekend. We also are getting the best Sockeye salmon of the year from the Copper River. We have red cedar planks and our Irish Whiskey maple glaze on hand for grilling up some wild salmon. Enjoy!