Scholarship Spotlight: Casco Bay Dreamin'

 

Paul C. Reilly is the chef and owner of Beast + Bottle in Denver. He was a recipient of the 2013 Jean-Louis Palladin Professional Work/Study grant, which he used to study sustainable fishing at Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine.

 

As I pulled my white Ford Fiesta rental into the parking garage and stuck my boots out, there it was. It penetrated my nostrils and would continue to do so for the next five days. Salt, but not just the smell of salt, it was the feel of salt, the taste of salt. Mixed with seaweed and mud, it was the scent of Casco Bay. Not all ocean water smells like this. It has to be real cold water. It has to be the North Atlantic.

 

I’d come to learn over the next week that that scent holds a story all its own. It’s a story of history and tradition; the story of Maine as told to me by the people who work its boats and docks. I was lucky that my narrators were the good folk at Browne Trading Company (BTC) on Merrill’s Wharf in Portland. What I learned was a complete 180-degree change from what I had expected going into my trip.

 

I packed warm the next morning. (This was Maine after all.) Portland is a great walking city. You can see where the clippers used to pull up to the warehouses on Commercial Street. Now it’s all landfill, full of restaurants, bars, and tourist trap retail. I found BTC almost at the end of the block, walked in and introduced myself to James at the door.

 

“You must be the intern,” he said.

 

“Yup,” I said, “I’m Paul.”

 

“Man, did you luck out, it’s balmy today.”

 

Balmy? I was freezing. James walked me upstairs where I finally met up with Nick. Nick had been my contact in the weeks before my arrival. Presented with a BTC hat and sweatshirt, I was given a tour of their facility and introduced to Rod Mitchell, the founder and brainchild behind the whole BTC operation and a legend in both the fishing and restaurant world. In person, he spoke with a stereotypical Maine accent. His skin looked tough as leather, weathered from the harsh Atlantic winds. He was quick and to the point, but generally interested in who I was and why I was there.

 

In the production meeting, the staff members in ordering, packaging, and receiving communicated with each other about orders for that day and the next. They discussed what was left in-house and what was going out that day. Every day’s quotas are different depending on which clients need what and what BTC has on hand. That Monday morning, monkfish was tight, and there was no skate wing to be found. The staff discussed how the Maine bluefin tuna season was basically over but that they had beautiful yellowfin from the Caribbean.

 

“One guy caught three tuna this weekend and netted $25k from the Japanese,” explained Rod. “Paul, grab your jacket, we’re heading to the Fish Exchange.”

 

The Portland Fish Exchange (PFE) is one of only three fish markets still running in New England. It was the first to implement an auction-style format, modeled after Tokyo’s famed Tsujiki Market. Local fishermen bring in their catch the night before or that morning to present for sale. The fish is sorted by species and by the boat on which it was caught. It’s all Maine groundfish: cod, hake, monkfish, dab, and lots and lots of pollock. Rod inspected the fish to fill in quotas from BTC’s orders. He favors fish caught on smaller trolling boats because they’re usually not out to sea as long as the larger boats, meaning the fish is fresher. He picked out super-fresh specimens: still in rigor, with their eyes the same color as their skin. He was also after some large cod to start a salt cod (baccala) project, made in house at BTC for selling to top chefs for the holidays. That morning’s catch was around 20,000 pounds of fish. Rod explained that that’s not much; about average these days. The PFE has been losing out to fishermen landing in the Massachusetts markets, where the state subsidizes their fuel, and fishermen can garner extra money with lobster by-catch.

 

Eight minutes before the auction began, Rod let them know which particular fish he’s after and we headed out to the South Portland docks. This is where Rod docks his custom-built, MAC50 fishing vessel, the Hazel Browne. On that day, she was geared up as a tuna-fishing boat. He thought about going out, but the local sea report were saying that waves were four to seven feet high, and Rod worried about me getting sick. He was probably right.

 

Over a sushi lunch of local fish (herring with bonito, sea urchin roe, Nantucket bay scallops with avocado and shiso), Rod and I discussed “sustainability.” He said there really is no such thing as sustainable fishing. BTC calls it “responsibly harvested.” This is the term I plan on using on my menus at my restaurant, Beast + Bottle. He told me how the Maine fishing industry is in grave danger. None of the next generation of would-be fishermen wants to take up the craft, due to its high-priced labor and low-cost revenue.

 

“As a chef, how can I help?” I asked.

 

“Put Maine groundfish on your menu,” he replied. “Maine lobster will always be in demand. However, our ocean has much more bounty to offer.”

 

One of those would-be fishermen of the next generation is Matt Moretti. Matt, 28, owns Bangs Island Mussels. Matt and his father purchased the company from a previous owner who neglected the farms, which actually are out on two barges in Casco Bay. On a humid November morning, I boarded the mussel boat, La Cozze, with Matt and his assistant Dave. We weren’t going to its namesake farm, Bangs Island, but to Clapboard Island, a few miles closer to Portland. As stated before, Clapboard Island isn’t an island at all. It’s a series of three barges anchored in the middle of the bay and named after the closest residential island. Underwater nets surrounding the barges keep out cormorants—diving ducks, which are the operation’s only predator and worst enemy.

 

 

Matt and Dave raise the mussels in their natural habitat. The mussels feed on plankton, ocean nutrients, and other mussels. They plant “seed,” or smaller mussels, on thirty-five-foot ropes suspended from the barges in fifty feet of water. When its time to harvest the mussels, the ropes are dragged up onto another barge and sorted with a machine similar to a wine hopper. The smaller mussels are re-roped and put back in the bay to grow for another two months, or until they are market size. I got to help sort the mussels with a shovel. Hard work, for sure. We found clamworms and eels buried in with the mussels in tons of fresh mud.

 

It takes the mussels approximately eighteen months to come to market size. Currently, Matt is harvesting about 10,000 pounds per year with a plan for expansion within the next two. Besides rope supplies, fuel, and labor, Matt doesn’t pay for anything. The mussels feed on what the ocean has to offer and constantly re-generate themselves. Surely, this is the closest one could get to “sustainable” fishing practices. That night, I bought two pounds of Bangs Island Mussels and steamed them up back at my hotel with some white wine, tomato, jalapeno, and scallion. The meat was bigger, plumper, and more succulent than any shellfish I had ever tasted. I couldn’t wait to put them on my menu.

 

Over the next few days I studied other parts of the Maine fishing industry. At ISF, I learned about sea urchins, sea urchin roe, slime eels, and sea cucumbers. At Ready’s, I saw the ins and outs of Maine’s largest lobster producer and how they ship over 63,000 pounds of Maine lobster daily to places around the globe. Back at BTC, I leaned about imported caviars from Germany, Israel, and China, as well as domestic caviars from both sturgeon and paddlefish. I also got to work in their in-house smoke room, where both hot- and cold-smoking of Scottish salmon is done, as well as smoked rainbow trout, scallops, and mussels. BTC is the exclusive producer of chef Daniel Boulud’s signature line of smoked salmon. They worked one-on-one with Boulud to create a product with his exact specifications: cured with sugar, salt, and local seaweed, then cold-smoked for six hours over Maine cherry wood.

 

Daniel Boulud is just one of many chefs that patronize BTC. Their client list reads like a who’s who of great American chefs. One afternoon, in the BTC shipping room, I helped pack up orders to other restaurants across the United States for chefs such as Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Andrew Carmellini, Jean Georges Vongerichten, and Dan Barber. It was quite humbling to be handling fish to be used in these chefs’ meccas of gastronomy.

 

Another day, I learned about a different type of responsibly harvested fishing that exists in Maine. An hour’s drive north of Portland lays West Bath, home to Winter Point Oyster Company (WPOC). John Hennessey owns WPOC. This aqua-cultured farm sits beside land that has been owned by the Hennessey family since the 18th-century and which was actually decreed to them by King George III of Great Britain.

 

On that cold, bitter morning, John was clothed in huge, orange, waterproof overalls; his thick black beard protecting him from the chilly wind coming up by the bay. That day, John had a helper: his father, Jim. Jim drove us around on a small barge, cracking jokes about how oyster farming yields very little pay for how hard the work is.

 

The Hennessey family leases the water where the oysters are raised from the state of Maine. They purchase oyster eggs from a purveyor who is only one of two in the state. They recently switched purveyors because the previous company’s eggs had produced strangely shaped, unusable oysters, costing the family lots of time and money. John and Jim have a very detailed system of how and where they plant the oyster eggs for hatching. It makes very little sense to me, but they know exactly where the oysters ready to be harvested sit on the water’s floor.

 

Oysters ready for market are approximately two and a half years old. Like the trunk of a tree, you can tell an oyster’s age by rings on its shell, about the size of a thumbprint. A crane attached to the barge scoops up the oysters with a basket and dumps them on a homemade rig that slides them down to a table, ready to be sorted. This time of a year, there are hundreds of autumn leaves mixed in with the oysters, as well as native blue crabs and Asian green crabs. Once sorted, the oysters are put in another homemade contraption: a bucket, outfitted with scrub brushes. The bucket spins counter-clockwise and sprays the oysters with seawater to help remove barnacles, dirt, and mud. Afterwards, the oysters are spread out on another table and it’s time for John’s keen eye to get to work. He rapidly sorted them by size within a quarter of an inch.

 

“There’s a perfect size, believe it or not,” he said. “Chef Eric [Ripert] will only serve this size at Le Bernardin.”

 

How he sorted them so fast, I had no idea. It was obviously in his blood. During the sorting, John opened a few for me. The meat is ice-cold, tasting of cucumber and pure ocean. Absolutely delicious. John showed me a certain muscle in the oyster.

 

“As you eat the oyster, continue to chew on that muscle. The meat will become sweeter.”

 

Holy cow, he was right. Being able to eat a freshly shucked oyster on the dock where it has been harvested is a real treat. I’ve never had fresher tasting fish in my life. Once again, I witnessed how small operations are doing things the right way and producing an absolutely delicious product. That night, I dined at Eventide in downtown Portland. They served Winter Point oysters on the half shell with red wine mignonette and kimchi ice. They also served jumbo Winter Point’s with crispy potato and Korean barbecue sauce. Both were absolutely divine. I loved the way Eventide used both kinds of oysters on their menu.

 

I came to Maine expecting to learn about sustainable fishing practices. The good people at BTC and in the Maine fishing industry proved to me that the term does not really exist. However, through hard work, doing things the right way, and honest living they are carrying on a way of life and tradition that has existed in Maine for centuries. Their blood, sweat, and tears can be tasted on menus at the most revered restaurants in America. I plan on using the tools I learned on my trip at Beast + Bottle, while helping to promote an industry in danger of perishing. Every time I see a menu that features lobster, cod, or monkfish, I can smell that smell. It’s the smell of responsibly harvested fishing. It's the smell of gastronomy and the smell of Maine.

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