Where I live in southern Maine it's hard to find really fresh fish. This is a ridiculous statement, I know. I live on the coast of Maine. Where fish is caught. Where boats come in every day. But most of that fish goes to auction in Boston or Portland or Gloucester where it's then sold to dealers and local fish stores. So the majority of the fish I buy, even though it may have been caught within miles of my home, is at least a few days old before it arrives in my kitchen.
If I were a top New York chef this wouldn't be an issue. When leading chefs around the country want the best, freshest fish, they simply pick up the phone and call Browne Trading Company on Merrill's Wharf in Portland. The next day they've got it.
I recently spent the day at Browne Trading to see why it is that Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California, Daniel Boulud of Daniel, Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin - both in New York - and so many other top chefs shop for fish in Maine?
Nick Branchina, Browne's Marketing Director, is young, full of energy, and passionate about seafood. He shows me around the 200-year old warehouse that is now home to Browne Trading. The phone is ringing off the hook when I arrive. Orders come in from dozens of restaurants, the kind where you need to wait months for reservations. Forms are filled out with the chef and restaurant's name, and the type and quantity of fish. The order goes down a chute to a well lit, sterile-looking refrigerated room where men in bright orange rubber coveralls and thick sweaters are surrounded by hundreds of pounds of extraordinary looking fish.
Dire Straits is blasting from the sound system, keeping the room going at a rock-and-roll pace. Everyone here is deep into order forms and bins of seafood.
We follow an order for a top New York restaurant. Maine diver scallops (sold by the gallon - 8 pounds per gallon-in what looks like clean paint cans) glisten with freshness. Littlenecks, rope cultured mussels, tiny Maine shrimp, Maine river smelts, and sushi-grade tuna are packed into Styrofoam boxes with the kind of care a jeweler might use to pack diamonds.
The fish is packed in ice, but since this is Browne Trading this isn't just any kind of ice. Rod Mitchell, the owner and President of Browne Trading, understand that ice is hard and can actually damage fish. So he developed a type of ice that contains a touch of saline. Imagine an ice chip that is flat and thin, one that is so soft that when you hold it in your hand it actually molds or forms around your hand. This is exactly what the ice does when it come into contact with the fish. It doesn't rub or rock up against the fish's delicate flesh, but forms a soft protective shield for it to be shipped in.
Orders pile up and are readied for shipping. Some will go to restaurants in Portland and other parts of Maine, but the bulk are loaded onto trucks bound for Boston and New York City, while others head out to the Portland Jetport to be overnighted to Napa Valley, and destinations around the country.
A peek around the room reveals fish from over twenty countries. Aside from the Maine catch, there's salmon from Scotland, Loup De Mer (or Branzino) from Greece, Kampachi from Hawaii, John Dory from New Zealand and Portugal, wild Mediterranean turbot, Barramundi from Australia, and fish from Senegal, Alaska, England, France, and more. It's a virtual United Nations of fish.
Rod Mitchell comes down and invites me into the caviar room. A tall man with silver gray hair and mustache, Mitchell is a walking encyclopedia about all things that come from the sea. He introduces me to "caviar master" Richard Hall. We enter a small, very white room with a long table, and walls decorated with caviar labels and tins. It's so quiet I wonder if the room's been soundproofed.
"Go on, take it out," Mitchell instructs Hall.
Hall places two huge tins of caviar on the table and sighs with giddy anticipation.
"We're going to select some caviar for one our special clients," Mitchell explains. He says the word "special" with dramatic emphasis. "This," he says pointing to one of the tins, "is a rare golden caviar from Iran, also known as the `Shah's caviar.' It's extremely rare and served only to royalty. This is going to Chef Jonathan Benno at Per Se and Thomas Keller at French Laundry." As far as culinary royalty go, Benno and Keller are kings. And they are going to have to pay a king's ransom to get this caviar.
What, I ask innocently, would a tin of Iranian gold caviar go for?
"Well," says Mitchell, clearly savoring the moment. "Let's see. A kilo goes for around $10,000 so each of these tins is worth about $20,000."
My heart is pounding. I expect the cops to crash in and bust us. There is something that feels totally illegal about all this. Mitchell interrupts my little paranoid chain of thought. "This stuff comes from a little town in Iran south of the Caspian Sea called Gorgan, which means `rain of diamonds.' No one knows for sure why this caviar takes on this particular pigment, but let's give it a taste."
He dips a spoon into the caviar and seems to swirl it around his mouth. For a moment he is silent. Mitchell nods and asks Hall what he thinks. "Nice, slightly nutty, creamy finish," he offers. Hall taps the inside of the lid against the tin to release each one of the eggs. The way I figure it each one of these eggs is worth about $3 to $4. "Go on try it," Mitchell says gesturing towards the tin. Me? $3 to $4 an egg? Maybe I should snort it.
The caviar is clean tasting, slightly salty, and fills my mouth with a gorgeous sea flavor. The eggs are small and burst on contact. I'm in heaven.
I note the gorgeous golden, almost amber color. "All caviar has variation of color," notes Mitchell. "That has to do with each sturgeon being a little bit different. One of the reasons this happens is that the sturgeon has more chromosomes than any living thing in the world. The sturgeon has been around 100 million years. Man has 23 chromosomes, but sturgeon can start at 120 and … have and as many as 500 chromosomes depending on the species. That's why we're seeing so many differences in the color of caviar as well as the different qualities of the caviar."
We go on to taste caviar from France, Italy, and Germany-both farm-raised and wild. Mitchell describes one batch of the farm raised caviar as being "muddy," and after several spoonfuls I understand what he means. We taste and talk caviar for close to an hour; my mouth is filled with a wonderful salty, subtle fish flavor, and my mind is packed with facts. Who knew caviar shouldn't be served too cold or you won't taste all the nuances? Or that a tin of caviar stored between 28 and 32 degrees will last close to two years? Or that most caviar needs to cure for six months to truly develop its full character?
How do you say thank you to someone who has shared their $20,000 worth of golden caviar with you? We shake hands and I feel like I should bow. Instead I head into Browne's retail store and buy some fresh Maine diver scallops which I will bring home and saut` for dinner. With fish this fresh and good, I feel like one of those hot New York chefs. Browne Trading Company's
retail store is open to the public. If you're interested in buying caviar the staff will make recommendations and even allow tastings. Yes, I said tastings! Prices are far more reasonable than you might expect. There's also a stunning collection of wine and cheese available. Browne Trading Company, Merrill's Wharf, 260 Commercial Street, Portland, Maine 04101; 207. 775 7560 or for mail orders call 800.944.7848New England Winter Salad of Watercress,
Saut`ed Scallops, Oranges and Almonds
A bed of crunchy, peppery watercress is topped with sweet scallops, tangy orange or tangerine sections, and saut`ed slivered almonds. Serve the salad warm with crusty bread.
1 ½ cups watercress, stemmed
2 oranges, cut into 8 thin slices widthwise, rind removed and flesh cut into quarters, or 2 tangerines or clementines, peeled, with each segment cut in half
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup slivered almonds
1/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste
A generous grinding of black pepper
1 pound fresh sea scallops, or diver scallops (see page 00)
About 1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
Juice of 1 large orange (about ½ cup)
1/3 cup dry vermouth, or dry white wine
Place the watercress in the center of a large serving platter. Surround it with the orange segments, scattering a few pieces of orange on top of the watercress as well as around it.
In a small skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the almonds and saut` for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
Place flour in a bowl or plastic bag, and season it liberally with salt and pepper. Dredge the scallops in the seasoned flour, making sure to coat them on all sides.
Place the remaining tablespoon of butter and the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat. When the fat is quite hot, add the scallops, being careful not to crowd the skillet. Cook for 2 minutes and, using tongs, flip the scallops over. They should be a golden brown color on one side. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the scallops are just cooked through (you can test one by removing it from the pan and cutting it in half). Place the scallops on top of the watercress. Add the orange juice and vermouth to the hot skillet and boil down on high heat for 2 minutes, or until thickened and slightly reduced. Scatter the warm almonds on top of the scallops and drizzle the pan juices over the whole plate. Serve immediately. Serves 4 as a main course, and 6 as a salad course.