How can farmed fish be good, clean and fair? A Taste Workshop at Slow Fish 2011 explores different kinds of aquaculture and presents two virtuous examples.
With as much as 50% of the fish we eat coming from aquaculture, we have to be able to distinguish between good and bad farmed fish. That was the message of a Taste Workshop at Slow Fish 2011, “First-Class Aquaculture,” held on Friday May 27 at 6 pm.
“There’s aquaculture and there’s aquaculture,” said Cinzia Scaffidi, director of the Slow Food Study Center, who introduced the workshop. “At one end of the sustainable continuum is bivalve farming. Bivalves like mussels don’t need to be fed by humans because they filter microorganisms from the water, and in fact farmed bivalves are preferable to those harvested from less controlled waters. Then at the other end is the type of aquaculture that should be avoided completely, the intensive farming of predators at the top of the food chain. They’re fed a lot of wild fish and kept in small environments so they get sick easily and need to be given medicines.”
“We have to identify the middle ground between these two extremes,” said Scaffidi. The workshop provided two examples of sustainable and high-quality fish farming. The Fonda family farms sea bass in the waters of the Adriatic off the Slovenian coast, while Roberto Co’s Aqua, near Genoa, Italy, farms sea bass and sea bream in offshore cages.
Their fish was prepared by two chefs closely linked to the farms, Ilija Pejic, who runs a restaurant in Tarvisio, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, just over the border from Slovenia, and Alessandro Dentone, chef at the Fish Club in Santa Margherita Ligure, near Genoa. They both used cooking techniques that focused attention on the high quality of the fish.
Pejic served Fonda sea bass first raw, with just a little olive oil and salt from the Pirano salt pans near the fish farm. As Irena Fonda told the audience, “when it’s raw you can’t hide anything.” For his second dish he vacuum-cooked the sea bass, another method in which quality is vital. The cooked sea bass was served with a lemon foam and a bright-green sauce made from wild herbs local to the Tarvisio area. Dentone served the Aqua bream raw, marinated with blood oranges, salt, gin and a negroni cocktail syrup, tinting the fish a delicate pink color. He also prepared sea bream with asparagus and thyme, cooked “in cartoccio,” in a package, which preserved all the fish’s original characteristics.
“If someone says they don’t eat farmed fish, I ask them when was the last time they ate a wild cow?” So said Irena Fonda, challenging the common perception that farmed fish is inferior to wild. But she said that people need knowledge, they need to know how to select a product. At her family’s “boutique” farm, they use no chemical agents and fish growth is not forced. The fish are fed by hand every day, and it takes four or five years before they reach sellable weight.
Roberto Co’s farm also uses good practices. His bream and bass are raised in the open sea, subject to waves, tides and currents: “In a tank, you can change the water four or five times a day. In the sea, it changes 300 to 400 times a day. That makes a difference to the oxygenation of the water and the animal’s well-being. Plus the fish are always swimming, so they lose fat. But we lose 100 days of feeding a year, when we can’t get out because of the sea conditions.”
How to help consumers understand the importance of choosing fish farmed sustainably? Cinzia Scaffidi said that fish farms should become better at branding, and that restaurants should name suppliers. “Consumers want to do the right thing but don’t know where to start. The information flow is limited, and labeling is inadequate. Like the label on an industrial cheese, which just says ‘milk, rennet, salt’¬¬—it tells us nothing. It’s as though you turned over a book to see what it was about, and on the back was written ‘paper, ink, glue.’ We want the story. We want to know where the cheese comes from, what animal breeds were used, what they ate, and so on. With fish we learn even less, often they don’t even have a label.”
Irena Fonda agreed. “We can’t compete with big businesses. So we’ve focused on packaging and traceability, including for the final consumer. Restaurants now put ‘Fonda sea bass from Pirano’ on their menus. They can explain to diners why they made this choice, and show that they made an extra effort.”
She concluded: “We need to do the same as wine producers, giving information about where the fish comes from, what year it was born. That’s what consumers should demand.”