Friday, September 28, 2012

So long, and thanks for all the Fish


Courtesy of the Newfoundland Marine History Archives


Whilst perusing some online vintage photography, I stumbled on the above photo. It depicts two young girls with an unexpected, gape-mouthed monster dangling between them. This tableau was likely arranged to provide a sense of scale; thus we can get a real visual grasp on the typical size of a cod fish about 100 years ago.

That fish's head alone could feed a family. Mrs. Isabelle Beeton, one of Britain's most famous gentlewomen (and early domestic goddesses) wrote several cookery books in the nineteenth century. Apropos to this slightly terrifying photo, she penned a recipe for 'cod cheeks'. She suggested that it could serve eight. That is, two cheeks from this small leviathan alone provided a feast. The body could feed an army.

These were big fish. Not only large, but abundant and good for you; they provided immense amounts of protein and nutrients. Through the process of salt-drying, they could be preserved indefinitely. A wondrous food stuff, no doubt. Really, a historically critical animal to North American-European trade, probably only surpassed by the beaver in importance to this country.

There has not been a cod fish this big in Canadian waters for probably 60 years. Probably even longer. I find this profoundly distressing. Our oceans are in trouble; we have fished them into oblivion.

The indicators have been there for years. In 1968, the Canadian cod catch was over 800,000 tons. Let me repeat that, 800,000 tons, not individual fish, not pounds: TONS. Six short years later, it had collapsed to 34,000 tons. The Canadian government, through their ham-handed attempt to save the fishery, probably caused more harm than good. By the early 1990's, an industry that had thrived since the 1600's was dead. They never thought it could happen. When Europeans first arrived to the fabled Grand Banks in the 16th century, so the legend goes, the sea was so thick with fish, that one could literally pull the cod from the ocean with a bucket.

I'm not sure where my unlikely love affair with this fish started. I live in Toronto which enjoys a view of a beautiful lake, not an ocean. Although the St. Lawrence seaway provides a cursory connection to East Coast fisheries, I am quite removed from this world. I think it began when I read the book, Lament for an Ocean, by Michael Harris. At the time I was interested in any book about the ocean, especially sailing yarns. This book caught my attention, and I read it cover to cover, somewhat amazed at my interest in such a seemingly mundane subject. I have to say I was slightly shocked by the conclusions of the book. There was no happy ending. This was around the time that Brian Tobin, the (then) Minister of Canadian Fisheries, ordered Spanish trawlers away from the high seas just outside Canadian waters. Some boats were forcibly boarded by Canadian authorities, resulting in the kind of minor international incident for which our newspapers make hay, but CNN generally ignores. Moreover, Tobin brought one of the confiscated fishing nets to New York and put it on display outside UN headquarters. He hoped to show the world that foreign vessels were using illegal nets in Canada's sacred fishing waters; contributing to the quickly declining bio-mass, and in turn, helping along the destruction of the Newfoundland fishery and putting thousands of livelihoods at stake. It was a dramatic time. It was also twenty years ago and to this day, there are still no cod and no fishery. The cod we buy in the fish market now likely came from the North Sea courtesy of Icelandic and Scandinavian fisheries. 

I read another book simply titled 'Cod' by Mark Kurlansky. It tracks the vital importance this food stuff had,  not just on Canada's East Coast, but all of Europe and other parts of the world. Italians and Greeks were eating salted North Atlantic cod as far back as the late seventeenth century. It proved to be one of the real early successes of international trade.  It also seemed limitless.

I just realized that I've now banged out a half-dozen or so paragraphs about a fish. If you haven't clicked away by now, I'm thrilled to still have you with me. Let us continue.

With all this in mind, I've been making every attempt to purchase sustainable sea food and in general, stick to local fresh water species such as sustainably farmed rainbow trout or Great Lakes fisheries products like pickerel or white fish.  I've even seen yellow perch popping up in markets; very small fresh water fish that I recall catching as a kid. Salmon occasionally ends up on my plate, especially the Faroe Island variety. However, the Faroe Islands are certainly not close by, located thousands of kilometers away in the North Sea near Iceland.

This is not to say that cod is off the menu. Pshaw. I love cod and the fisheries in Europe have certainly come a long way in sustainability. They are smaller, and are not as abundant as they once were, but are certainly not in the same kind of trouble as Blue Fin Tuna or the Skate. Cod stocks in the East Atlantic are well-managed.  Probably the only thing that threatens Eastern Atlantic cod is the controversial European common fisheries laws regarding by-catch. If you're interested in this topic, check out Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish fight.(and sign the petition)

Of course, there is also a Pacific variety of cod that is tightly regulated and in relatively good shape. (also tasty in a fish taco)

I had cod on the menu in my fish cakes at the last Toronto Underground Market and one of the best things I have eaten thus far in 2012 is the "In Cod we Trust' taco from La Carnita. There is certainly room in our kitchens for this fine fish.

Early pioneers of the Great Lake fishery, courtesy of Purdy's Fishery
However, one fish that has really popped up on my radar lately is the Arctic char. This is fast becoming my new favourite fish.  Arctic char is farmed in the Yukon Territories using very strict sustainable standards. This species now has the stamp of approval from both Ocean Wise and Seafood Watch (sustainable fishing watchdogs). It also is pretty darn tasty.

The other night I picked up two healthy sized fillets of Arctic char from my most-visited fish monger, New Sea Way in Kensington Market. Cooking them couldn't be easier. I seasoned the flesh sides of the fillets and then got some fresh herbs on there. Then I put the two fillets together as if I was 'reassembling' the fish with the skin on the outside and packaged it up smartly with some butcher's twine. Then I simply seasoned and oiled the outside and got it on to a hot grill. It doesn't take more than eight to ten minutes to cook with a flip somewhere in the middle. Then simply get on a platter, snip off the twine and serve with the sides of your liking. With a clean, sweet and beautiful tasting flesh, I will be seeing more of this fine swimmer on my dinner table. Bonus: kids loved it.

So what is the main thrust of this meandering stream of fishy consciousness? Well, I suppose it just goes hand-in-hand with the usual gastronomically-themed sermons I've been spouting from my soap box lately. That is, let's put some thought in to what we eat, where it comes from and how it effects this wonderful world of ours. Maybe I'll actually live to see one of those monster cod...I'd love to cook up those cheeks.

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