"It is hands-down the best cod I’ve ever had," Chef Lora Kirk of Ruby Watchco says.
Chef Kirk met husband-and-wife team Anthony (Tony) Cobb and Janice Thomson when she and Chef Lynn Crawford were on Fogo Island last year. Over gin and tonics they got to talking about fishing boats. Tony offered to take her out on a punt (a traditional wood fishing boat).
A few months later, Cobb brought her some of his cod, "the first to leave the island in forever," Kirk says. It came frozen in a shatterbox (which allows you to use pieces as opposed to the whole block), which she tried cooking a number of ways – poached, confited, pan-fried skin on/skin off. "I realized it’s not your typical frozen fish."
The cod from Fogo Island is vastly different than others. The waters where they’re fished from have a current that brings icebergs in the summer moving at 24km per day, making the water 7-9 degrees colder than others. This cold water makes a great difference to the textures and flavours.
Tony Cobb and Janice Thomson started Fogo Island Fish, a pilot project of Shorefast Foundation, about 18 months ago. Cobb explains the many differences in the process of fishing this cod:
- The cod is caught by hook and line
"Not to be confused with long line where you can have a 5,000 foot line with 5,000 hooks. This is one hook, one line, one fish at a time pulled up by hand."
- It’s bled out right away
"We break the gills and place it gently in a bath of sea water and ice. It's alive. The number one difference is it’s hand lined and bled within half an hour of catching. It's a relatively painless death, with no stress."
- Everything’s done right on the boat
"We gut the fish and wash it with seawater and pack it on ice in a special insulated box."
- Flash freezing ensures freshness
"The cod is frozen within hours of being caught. It’s frozen at the very peak of freshness, similar to the freezing process of fruits and vegetables. It’s the best technology and our frozen fillets are in fact fresher than unfrozen cod' from all over the world. I want to start a conversation about 'fresh fish.' Fish that’s never frozen isn't very fresh. Seabass from the Mediterranean is 7-10 10 days old by the time it gets here, no matter how it's chilled."
- Ecologically better impact
"We are only shipping the part of the fish to be used. All the parts not to be used – head, tail, bones- only a third to half of the fish get’s eaten and the rest thrown away. The carbon footprint is so much less."
- Responsible fishing
"A 20-foot day boat with two fishers catches a limit of 500 lbs. of cod a day. They are back at the dock in five hours. They only fish three weeks of the year. It’s a completely new business model."
- Serving the community
"These fish processing jobs on the island create employment locally. This is our first year and we were able to recruit 33 fishers including women, all part of husband-and-wife teams to be part of the project. We are looking to double that next year. Our community benefits from the fish. We're paying fishers double. Fogo Island Fish will donate the net profits of the year to Shorefest Foundation, a federally registered charity operating on Fogo Isalnd."
- Connecting chefs with fishers
"We want to create a direct connection with fishers, the same as chefs and farmers. Chef Kirk came Fogo Island and fished with the fishers We don’t retail, broker or wholesale our fish. We bring it directly to the chefs."
Cobb says, "Chef Kirk was very much instrumental in us doing this. She was the one convincing us and helping us shape the process - how it was butchered and packaged to make it work for chefs."
Since the fish is frozen, a lot of chefs have resisted the idea. "When chefs are buying fish in Toronto they should know how, what, who caught it and when it was caught," says Cobb. "We think these are fundamental questions every person and chef should know about the fish that's being served."
Chef Kirk says, "You would never know it's frozen it's about the process and a small window of fishing. Also it’s consistent and you’re getting the same size of fillets."
In addition to cod fillets, Kirk is getting cod tongues. You can also get cod trim and bones. "The whole fish is being processed and used," she says.
Kirk emphasizes, "It’s not your typical frozen fish. There’s not a big pool of water, no ice crystals, no freezer burn like with other frozen fish. When you frying it, you can still crisp up the skin."
The flavour and texture is different too. "It's hard to describe. It has such a clean, fresh flavor. It melts in your mouth but not because it doesn't have texture. It’s not mushy or soft."
Kirk is passionate about Fogo Island cod. "They are not disturbing anything else when they catch the fish and the fish don’t suffer. There is no middleman and the fishers get a fair price. This is not supposed to be a one off. This is about how can we help keep it sustainable and keep these families livelihoods going? I want to give these families their livelihoods back."
Toronto restaurants using Fogo Island Fish (note - menus subject to change upon availability):
- Auberge du Pommier
- Canoe (it’s on their 20th anniversary menu)
- Globe Bistro
- The Hearth by Lynn Crawford (Terminal 1, Pearson Airport)
- Nota Bene
- Oliver & Bonacini Bayview Village
- Oliver & Bonacini Blue Mountain
- Ruby Watchco (It's on their menu this Friday - Fish Friday - and watch for cod tongues as a supplement in coming weeks)
Elsewhere in Canada:
- Beckta in Ottawa
- Nora Gray in Montreal
To find out more about Fogo Island Fish, contact Tony & Janice via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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