Cheek to Tail Fishmonging

Similarly to whole hog eating (snout to tail),  fish ‘scraps’ or frames have extraordinary potential.  After the prized fillets from this 100-pound Halibut were tucked away, what would have been trash, turned out to be extremely beneficial and satisfying.  I scalped out the cheeks and pan-seared them like scallops.  I split the collar in 2 and roasted them with herbs and garlic.  The  head and bones are frozen and will take up many of my small soup pots yet yield a silky, gelatinous and flavorful fumet to put up in the freezer to use for fish soups or sauces.  One fishmonger’s ‘garbage’ is another’s treasure.

Reflection: Becoming a Fishmonger

Today I reread a piece that I wrote when I first started the fishmonger program at Rubiner’s Cheesemonger and Grocers when I was persuaded to the idea of dedicating my work and passion around fish.  Since then I’ve sold, taught, and showcased the fishmonger program and continue to learn more and more everyday.

Written on August 18, 2008

So I work at a cheese shop in western Massachusetts. I have a good deal of background (work experience, culinary school) in the restaurant business. Having my passion aboard, boss man and i came up with an idea to start a pre order fish program for the store after agreeing with him that the local supermarket selection of tilapia, catfish, and farmed salmon was weaker than ever.

Our Source: Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine; nationally acclaimed for their fresh fish, smoked fish, and caviars. Since we already carried their smoked salmon in our store and seeing how i had dealt with them in my previous restaurant position, i thought it would be an instant “hook” (uh.. no pun intended). Little did i know that there are just are way bigger fish (last pun, I promise) in Boston, NYC, and other restaurants that are higher on the food chain than the cheese shop. If I called on Tuesday to hold that last wild turbot and Eric Ripert called the next day for a Turbot, chances are I’d be S.O.T. ( ‘shit out of turbot’). So began my journey into the world of fish, fishmongers, and the whole ‘fishy’ (seriously this topic is prone to puns) business.

Anyway to make this post shorter than it would be, (if I were a better typist) I set my fish goals high. I set up a list with Turbot, Portuguese sardines, rouget, piballes (baby glass eels), stuff that was very exquisite and also very expensive. At first we didn’t expect to get a bite but we did. Our second week we sold this handsome devil, wolfish. Boss man and I were so thrilled that boss man put the ugly sucker ( literally) on a white tray and walked him through our adjoining cafe. This was at 10 am. I can only imagine the feeling of the guy who was the slightest bit hung over, just wanting a cup of coffee to get him ready for his work day.

Since then the fish program has really taken off and we are moving up from just the ‘bottomfeeders.’

Fish Fellowship Stage 3: Caviar Lab

I arrived at Browne Trading Company bright and early on Monday morning Muck boots in hand and layered in a few thermal shirts.  I was ready to get on a boat, scout the seas for an exotic specimen and return with a weathered ripped sweater, seaweed in my boots and scruff on my face.

Upon being greeted and given a brisk tour, I was handed a hair net, a pair of blue latex gloves and a white lab coat.  I was to spend my first day in the Caviar room learning and helping to pack some of the world’s most delicate delicacies.

Richard Hall, who has been selecting and selling caviar for Rod Mitchell for nearly 17 years, holds down a small room by the shipping and recieving area at Browne and keeps a very clean, zen-like organized ‘laboratory’.  Walls of shelves contain rolls of labels, small to large jars and cans- everything catergorgorized, alphebitezied and sanitized.  The bright white lights, foreign tools and sealing machines had me thinking of a mad scientist labratory from the moment I entered and heard the echo of the steel door slam behind me.

Caviar packing is indeed meticulate and precise.  Tiny delicate roe that costs more per gram than most meats per pound have to be weighed to the exact gram and carefully placed inside glass jars a certain way as to not pop or denature the tiny eggs.

Once I got over my nervous shaky hands and Richard’s hawk-like eyes, I lightened up and tasted my way through about 15 caviars from Israeli farm-raised Sturgeon to Florida Siberian Sturgeon to Alaskan Chum Salmon Roe.  After a brief lunch break (of which I snobbishly raced my nose to) I was ready to pack caviar.  With only a few mere weighing mistakes, Richard comended me on my efforts and help.

I never thought too much of the differences between fine caviars and cheap caviars but after the first day at Browne I was able to distinguish differences and nuances in brininess, saltiness, nuttiness, and seaweed notes in particular grades and producers.  Similarly to being invited to taste some exquisite old Burgundys, I was honored to take part in such a tasting since I knew I wouldnt be doing this on the regular.

Caviar profiles and descriptions coming soon!

Fish Fellowship Stage 2: Wellfleet Oysters

As mentioned in the post, Fellowship Stage 1, I used the Wellfleet Oyster Festival as an outlet to practice what I learned with Jason Houston but also to learn more about the Oysters and the culture of a small, seasonal aquaculture driven town.

About 60-70 ‘Grants’ (privately owned sections of water for aquaculture) over 140 acres are owned in Wellfleet with no more available.  Grants range in size from ¼ of an acre to 11 acres.  A hobby or side job for some, a livlihood and main source of income to others.  Wellfleet brings in 2-3 million dollars a year from aquaculture making them one of the largest aquaculture towns in the northeast.

Jason and I met up early along the sunrising landscape to take some pictures of the ‘pre-mob’ town and talk with a few Oyster farmers and habor masters doing their daily routine.

A harbor master talked to us about the ‘kulch’ program that was introduced to Wellfleet about 20 years ago where old shells are saved and spread over the bays as a way to recycle the shells and provide sturdy beds and surfaces for the new Oysters to grow.

In another bay, a scientist gave us a few moments of her time to explain the research and analysis she was conducting on how the Oysters filtered and cleaned the waters (one Oyster filters 50 gallons per day).  Her intent was to get grants to be able to plant Oysters in more polluted bodies of water throughout the country to help clean them up.


The actual street festival atracted somewhere upwards of 5,000 people and consisted of live music, tents selling varies Oyster crafts/ souvineers and of course vendors serving the world famous Oysters anyway imaginable.

If attending the Oyster fest this year (2012), heres a few suggestions:

–       Get there early!  I drove out of town back to my motel and got stuck in traffic for about 2 hours trying to get back and find parking.

–       Bring cash!  The only ATM in town was exhausted of cash pretty early on the first day and all vendors took only cash (some personnal checks).  You can only imagine the look on my face when I discovered I only had cash to purchase 1 dozen oysters at the festival.

–       Not too kid friendly . Unless you have a diehard oyster loving toddler, there was just too big of crowds packed into the streets and not a lot of children activities or outlets.

–       Book hotel ahead of time.  I waited till the last minute and could only find a motel about 15 minutes outside of wellfleet (in was nice and affordable though- Skaket Beach Motel)

–       Don’t enter the Oyster shucking competition unless you are confident that you can open more than 30 oysters in a minute without severing the oyster meat or your own appendage.

Oyster Guide: Massachusetts, Wellfleet