The Pacific season is just about over, but farming is year-round. But to go Chilean or Canadian? What about Scottish? And what is it about Salmon that makes it such a popular fish, anyway?
To find some in-depth answers about this most versatile and almost-universally revered fish, we spoke with Jon Alexis, owner of TJ’s Seafood Market and overall fish aficionado. We sat down with Jon as he explained some of the intricacies of Salmon, like what it is that makes a Copper River salmon so great and why the Bay of Fundy is so good for farming. And, of course, what it is that makes this particular fish so tasty.
Thanks for taking the time to talk a little about salmon, Jon. It seems there’s a lot to know about this particular fish, so to begin, what is it that makes a salmon a salmon?
What makes a salmon a salmon? To get into what makes a salmon a salmon, you really have to get into the different types. We’ll start with Atlantic Salmon.
On one side of the family tree you have the Atlantic Salmon. When it comes to fish that are commercially available, there is no wild Atlantic salmon left – it was over-fished centuries ago. That said, Atlantic salmon is farm raised everywhere from the North Atlantic Ocean to as far East as Scandinavia and as far South as Chile. From a taste perspective, Atlantic salmon tends to be a little milder, and it can be fattier, which makes sense for a farm-raised fish. Who’s going to have more fat, the guy sitting on his couch or the guy outside, right? But even though it’s common sense that a farm-raised fish is going to be a little bit fattier, it gets more complicated than that, and I’ll get back to that when we get to the wild salmon.
So from a consumer’s standpoint, how do you choose an Atlantic Salmon if they’re all farm-raised? Does it make a difference if it’s a Scottish Salmon, a Fundy salmon, a Chilean salmon? Well, we believe that salmon raised in its ‘natural environment’ is the best product available. A farm-raised, North Atlantic Salmon raised in the North Atlantic all of a sudden has a head start in that it’s where it should be. For instance, in Chile, they had problems with their salmon crop; they’ve had salmon immune deficiency syndrome. They’ve had salmon sitting out at the docks too long, overcrowding their bins. Chilean salmon tends to be the lowest quality farm-raised salmon. It’s one of the few fish that we at TJ’s tell our customers, “If you see salmon product from Chile, stay away from it.”
Now, take the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. It’s the world’s largest natural tidal pool; more water flows in and out of the Bay of Fundy in one tidal cycle than the combined volume of every fresh water river in the world. Between high tide and low tide, the water can raise or lower 70 feet in the Bay of Fundy. What does that do? All of that tidal activity keeps the water circulating and clean – where aqua farming goes bad is when you get stagnant water, fish sitting in their own poop. But there’s also absolutely top, top premium salmon from Scandinavia as well, while Scottish salmon tends to have the highest fat content. That being said, we believe the Bay of Fundy salmon is a better salmon based on taste. But that’s subjective.
The net of all that is that people should not be averse to farm-raised fish. Aqua farming is not only positive, it’s essential as the demand for fresh seafood increases exponentially. There are a lot of people who say, ‘I will not eat a farm-raised fish.’ Yet they eat farm-raised pigs, farm-raised cows, farm-raised sheep, farm-raised vegetables. But for some reason they say they would never eat a farm-raised fish.
Good farm-raised salmon is excellent. Bad farm-raised salmon is terrible. We need to be aqua farming right, supporting the people that do it right, and supporting the people that take into consideration the environmental impact. It’s not just the fish you eat. It’s how does it impact the water around the aqua farm? What is the ratio on feed? Are they using one point one pounds of fish to create a feed to grow one pound of fish? That happens, and more often than you would think. Those are the questions we need to be asking to make sure we’re farming correctly.
But there’s still a huge market for the Pacific Salmon – what makes them so different?
So the Atlantic Salmon is basically one species; one species just grown in different places. But with Pacific Salmon, you have five primary, distinct species, all of which have at least two different names. And here’s where it begins to get a little confusing.
You have Chinook – what we in America call King. And then the second is Coho, which you will also hear referred to as Silver. Then there’s Chum, which you see referred to also as Dogs – you’re not going to see a whole lot of that unless you’re big into fishing. Then there’s Pink, which is also referred to as Humpies. And then Sockeye, also known as Reds. So those are the species, but it gets even more confusing from there. You can have a Columbia River Sockeye. You can have a Copper River King. So there is the headline Pacific Wild King, there’s the subhead of the river and the subhead of the species of which there are different options among each one.
So all those salmon exist, hanging out in the Pacific Ocean, right? So there are all these rivers in Pacific Northwest – everybody knows the story of the salmon. Salmon has a brain the size of a cashew, and somewhere in that little salmon brain, while it’s out swimming in the ocean playing salmon games, whatever salmon do, something in its head goes off and it says it’s time to spawn. So they start loading up, eating big – their diet changes. And what they do is gather at the mouth of the river from whence they came – and as I understand it, no scientist still has an answer on how they know exactly which river to go to. But Yukon River Salmon go to the Yukon River, Columbia River Salmon to the Columbia River. Stikine River Salmon to the Stikine River, and so forth. They all just gather; a huge gathering at the mouth of the river, until all of a sudden something clicks and they just go back up it.
So from a food source perspective, this is the best time to catch Copper River salmon or a Columbia River Salmon, or whatever kind of Pacific Salmon. You’d think it’s caught in the river, but you want to catch it at the mouth of the river, because once it starts fighting upstream it starts burning off fat. So you’re picking it at its ripest at the mouth of the river.
What makes a particular river’s salmon more desirable than another’s?
The more difficult the river is to traverse upstream the better the salmon. If you think about it, the harder the river is to swim, the heartier they have to be. And that’s why the Copper River is considered to be the premium salmon – it’s about 300 hundred miles long with a mile in elevation. That’s the stuff you see on the Nature Channel - salmon jumping up rapids, that sort of thing.
Then, for instance, take Columbia River. The Columbia River is over 1,200 miles long but basically flat. Imagine a difference in an NFL linebacker and a New York Marathon winner; they’re two world class athletes, but with two totally different body types. In just the same way a Copper River Salmon or a Columbia River salmon can be different.
How would you describe the difference in taste?
With Copper River, the salmon flesh is much more full-flavored than Atlantic salmon. It’s gamier – and people use that as a negative, but I’m not. It’s like venison is gamier than beef. And then those white stripes of fat almost create a self-saucing protein. You get a very full-flavored salmon and then something almost like a creamy butter sauce, like a confit kind of thing. Not to mention that it’s loaded with so much more heart healthy stuff than you could possibly imagine.
Columbia River Salmon usually starts in mid-April, when the water’s colder. Columbia River Salmon has the stripes, but it also has that same fat marbled into its flesh at a microscopic level. So instead of having that kind of steaky, gamey, full-flavored salmon with that creamy sauce, it’s almost like a ribeye in that it’s just really well marbled.
So what sort of cooking style would you say Salmon lends itself to?
The easier question to answer would be what type of preparation does not lend itself to salmon? Salmon’s high fat content allows it to be cooked any way a single piece of fish can be cooked.
Or even not cooked at all?
Exactly. It’s perfect for sushi, too.