RUN­NING ON EMPTY

As the world’s seafood pop­u­la­tion shrinks, chefs turn to more sus­tain­able ways of plat­ing up the catch of the day.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

Ear­lier this year, At­tica’s Ben Shewry hosted a din­ner with Matt Or­lando, head chef and owner of Amass restau­rant in Copen­hagen. Guests were greeted with a hand­painted sign that read, “En­joy your fuck­ing din­ner” and de­tailed a menu full of the vaguely un­set­tling in­gre­di­ents At­tica is known for: ants, road­kill, pro­duce on the wrong side of its use-by date. One course fea­tured lo­cally sourced abalone nes­tled on ten­der leaves of salt­bush, staged on a pile of rub­bish – cans, beer bot­tles, snarls of plas­tic, even a Nike shoe – hand­picked from Brighton Beach. Shewry called it: “The State of Port Phillip Bay”. It was, he ad­mits, a dish in­tended to shock.

Shewry tends not to val­orise At­tica’s sus­tain­able cre­den­tials be­cause he be­lieves em­ploy­ing such prac­tices is the ba­sic re­spon­si­bil­ity of ev­ery chef, and At­tica’s menu speaks for it­self. If you look closely, you will dis­cover an open se­cret: while crus­taceans fig­ure in sev­eral cour­ses, there isn’t a hint of fin­fish to be found.

“We haven’t served wild fin­fish for prob­a­bly three years,” he says. “I de­cided I couldn’t in good con­science, so I just took it off.”

The prob­lem weigh­ing on Shewry’s mind is this: our ap­petite for seafood has put in­creas­ing pres­sure on the world’s wild fish pop­u­la­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a 2016 re­port from the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions, bi­o­log­i­cally sus­tain­able lev­els of fish stock dropped from 90 per cent in 1974 to just 68.6 per cent in 2013 – mean­ing that 31.4 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are over­fished. A 2016 study of Aus­tralia’s ma­rine do­main found that of 83 species assessed, 17 per cent of those were ei­ther over­fished, en­vi­ron­men­tally lim­ited or de­plet­ing. Add this to the prob­lems caused by trawl­ing, net fish­ing and dredg­ing – dev­as­tated ma­rine ecosys­tems and the en­dan­ger­ment of species such as dol­phins, dugongs and sea tur­tles as vic­tims of by­catch – and things start to look very bleak, very quickly. The ocean may give the im­pres­sion of lim­it­less abun­dance, but the re­al­ity is that seafood is a fi­nite re­source and some species, like the south­ern bluefin tuna, are at risk of be­ing eaten out of ex­is­tence.

Shewry’s own in­ter­est in the is­sue came af­ter he re­alised that the fish that had been read­ily avail­able when he first moved to Aus­tralia had, over a 10-year pe­riod, be­come al­most im­pos­si­ble to get.

“Now, why would that be?” he asks. “Be­cause they’re be­ing over­fished. Be­cause stocks are be­ing de­pleted. There’s no other prac­ti­cal rea­son for that to hap­pen. I don’t want to sound too ex­treme, but if we were har­vest­ing koalas from trees the way we har­vest rock lob­sters, peo­ple would be out­raged.”

Over­fish­ing is one thing. But as Shewry points out, there’s a lot more to the busi­ness of eth­i­cal seafood than be­ing mind­ful of that. “It’s not just the sus­tain­abil­ity of the species that’s im­por­tant, but also how a restau­rant han­dles the fish.

“We want you to be able to eat some fish sperm and go ‘wow, that’s amaz­ing, what is that?’”

“The RSPCA has ex­cel­lent guide­lines in place that I be­lieve ev­ery chef in Aus­tralia should be fol­low­ing.”

This is­sue of han­dling live pro­duce is one that Vue Group ex­ec­u­tive chef Justin James has thought a lot about. Last year, Shan­non Ben­nett shut down Bistro Vue and opened, in its place, a mood­ily lit seafood restau­rant called Iki-Jime. The restau­rant shares its name with a Ja­panese method of killing fish that both the RSPCA and the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment have en­dorsed as best prac­tice.

“Ike­jime is a method but it’s also a phi­los­o­phy about how to han­dle any­thing – with the end goal be­ing that the prod­uct is as per­fect as pos­si­ble,” ex­plains James. He was in­tro­duced to the con­cept by fish­er­man Mark Eather, who pi­o­neered the method in Aus­tralia and be­lieves that the way in which a fish is caught, han­dled and killed di­rectly cor­re­lates with how it will taste on the plate. This makes sense. The flesh of a fish that’s been line caught, in­di­vid­u­ally han­dled and treated with a cer­tain level of rev­er­ence will taste bet­ter and last longer than a fish that’s been jos­tled and bruised by thou­sands of kilo­grams of other fish writhing in a net. Ex­posed to such stres­sors, a fish’s heart starts rac­ing and its mus­cles tense up, trig­ger­ing chem­i­cal changes in its body, such as the re­lease of lac­tic acid.

“That’s what we want to avoid be­cause it ac­tu­ally changes the flavour, tex­ture and taste of the fi­nal prod­uct,” says James. The ike­jime method sees each fish caught on the line and in­di­vid­u­ally dis­patched via a spike to the brain. “It’s a quick, clean kill.”

Eather works in a small-scale, con­sid­ered way that leaves al­most no en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print. “You’re not get­ting any by­catch and you’re not de­stroy­ing any habi­tats,” ex­plains James. “If it’s not within size reg­u­la­tions, it gets tossed back; if it’s in spawn­ing sea­son, it gets tossed back.”

Sourc­ing what­ever is avail­able lo­cally and at peak fresh­ness has its own chal­lenges: the of­fer­ing at Iki-Jime changes daily, in ac­cor­dance with what­ever Eather brings in from the boat.

“We or­der a lot of things and never get what we want,” says James wryly. “But that’s the beauty of it – you let the fish­er­men de­cide what your menu is.”

He’s found that work­ing strictly within the con­fines of sea­son­al­ity is lim­it­ing, but not in a neg­a­tive way: in­stead, it’s en­cour­aged him to think – and cook – more cre­atively.

Josh Niland, one half of the team be­hind Padding­ton’s Saint Peter and Fish Butch­ery, says: “When you go to col­lege or TAFE, you get told that some fish have a 60 per cent loss and a 40 per cent yield.

“I just can’t get my head around that. We’re be­ing taught what loss is but we’re not get­ting taught what to do with it.”

Niland is think­ing cre­atively about how to make use of the parts of fish that we would typ­i­cally throw away, cit­ing mar­row, blood, of­fal, even fish sperm, as fair game.

“I rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity to use every­thing,” he says. “The Ja­panese have been do­ing things with all the parts of the fish for cen­turies, so it’s not as if we’re the first ones to come out and say we’re us­ing the eye­balls or what­ever.”

His chal­lenge is to find a way to make those less-utilised parts of the fish ap­peal to an Aus­tralian palate. He’s found suc­cess with a kind of crisp chip, a lit­tle like a prawn cracker, made out of fish eye­balls, a black pud­ding made from fish blood, and an in­stant fish stock made from ground bones. Fish liv­ers, pan-fried and served with pars­ley on toast, are the ocean’s (less con­tro­ver­sial) an­swer to foie gras. Rather than us­ing just the fil­let of a sword­fish, Niland dry-ages the fish for 15 days and serves it smoked and charred on the bone so it ar­rives at the ta­ble look­ing more like bis­tecca alla Fiorentina than some­thing that came from the sea.

“We want peo­ple to see that we can make fin-food glam­orous,” he says. “We can make the head of a fish de­sir­able. We can make the eyes re­ally de­li­cious. We want you to be able to eat some fish sperm and go, ‘wow, that’s amaz­ing, what is that?’ If you ap­ply half the ‘nose-to-tail’ phi­los­o­phy of pig cook­ery to the fish world, you have a whole new reper­toire.”

Of course, be­fore you can get din­ers on board with eat­ing fish sperm, there’s a cer­tain amount of squeamish­ness that needs to be over­come. Part of this, Niland has found, comes down to pre­sen­ta­tion: if you can make some­thing look beau­ti­ful as well as tast­ing de­li­cious, it goes a long way to help­ing peo­ple con­front their food bi­ases.

At Fish Butch­ery, in­stead of a big, slush-filled ice counter, you’re greeted with a hu­mid­ity con­trolled case dis­play­ing pre­cise cuts of fish ar­ranged like jew­els. A re­frig­er­ated cab­i­net shows off the most pho­to­genic pro­duce: whole wild co­bia from Bund­aberg, Mooloolaba al­ba­core mid­way through its dry-age­ing process, and bun­dles of sausages made from prawns and ocean trout.

Not only do these dis­plays look ap­peal­ing, they also serve to put the spot­light on species of fish that wouldn’t be at the top of the av­er­age shop­ping list.

“We’re buy­ing leather­jacket, black ling, snook, yel­low­eye mul­let – all these dif­fer­ent fish that no one knows too much about,” says Niland. “We’re hav­ing a good time ex­plor­ing the meth­ods of cook­ery so we can then tell our cus­tomers what to do with them.”

All food, of course, in­volves a cer­tain level of eth­i­cal com­pro­mise. Fish is no dif­fer­ent. In Aus­tralia, ma­rine parks and fish­eries are gov­erned by strict guide­lines de­signed to en­sure sus­tain­able fish­ing, and man­age­ment plans have been im­ple­mented for vul­ner­a­ble species such as south­ern bluefin tuna and or­ange roughy. The tide, then, could be turn­ing, but only if din­ers will fol­low where chefs lead.

For Shewry, this means only serv­ing the things that his con­science will al­low. For James, it’s about in­sist­ing on a higher stan­dard of care in the way that fish are han­dled, stored and killed. For Niland, it means pro­mot­ing un­der-utilised species and us­ing ev­ery last bit of the fish he can. Lately, he’s been think­ing be­yond the scope of Saint Peter and Fish Butch­ery.

“To com­mer­cialise a fish-eye chip would be quite cool.

Just to take the edge off one facet of the fish go­ing to waste… I think there’s heaps of po­ten­tial.”

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