Anise or aniseed, Pimpinella anisum, is very similar in flavor to fennel, licorice and star anise. It turns out there is a simple reason for this. They all have in common Anethole.
Anethole is a widely used flavoring substance which can be produced by deriving it from another compound. However, anethole is the common link between anise, star anise, fennel and licorice. That’s why they all taste, more or less, the same. Closely related to anethole is estragole (estragon is French for tarragon), which is an isomer. Yeah, what? An isomer is a compound with the same elements as another compound, but arranged in a different pattern.
Permit me a crude, but I hope illustrative example. 3 cooks are presented with the same ingredients: 2 eggs, half a cup each of onions, peppers and tomatoes. Each cook makes a different dish. Same ingredients differently arranged.
Food fraud has become a big issue and one which I’ve started to write about. There are vendors and producers who are dependable about selling and serving real food. These businesses should be rewarded with business again and again.
When I was cooking in Tallahassee, we bought our fish from Southern Seafood. Tallahassee is rather near the gulf coast so fish choices were more than 1. Southern was our fish monger of choice.
I emailed Matt McCreless to ask about fake food as it pertains to his knowledge of the fish business in northern Florida, but also to get a sense of the fish business there in general.
Let’s start with some basics. Fish mongering seems a vocation of increasing rarity. What spoke to you about the fish business and how long have you been at it?
I got into it completely by accident. Part time job during college that turned into full time, dropping out of college. It was a new business and the business part of it excited me. I don’t think I was that enamored by the fish part, but the business part was fun. Buying and selling, pay bills and see if you have any left over…
With no intention to destroy the myth that you are on the shore every morning casting a line for the fish you sell, tell me how commercial fishing works in your part of the world.
The sad reality is there is not much produced, anymore, domestically. It is an international market place. Fish come from all over the world to be sold in the United States. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a viable domestic market, absolutely preferable to the import, but we do not produce enough to sustain the demand throughout the country. On the retail side of it, we try to stick strictly with domestic product. However, frankly, many restaurants want to use a value product that many times is imported.
What is long-line fishing and is it bad? What are the primary complaints and how do the proponents react?
Long line fishing is the method of stringing out, sometimes, miles and miles, of line with hundreds of hooks. It can be a very effective method of fishing. However, there are a lot of bad side effects. Species are killed indiscriminately and, sometimes, fish are left on the hook dead for a long period of time, preventing them from being taken care of in the intended way: iced and gutted upon capture.
In Larry Olmsted’s book Real Food/Fake Food, he discusses how so many of the foods we eat are faked either due to flat out substitution as is the case with fish and beef and sushi and olive oil or making something in a non-traditional location such as California Champagne or Wisconsin Parmesan cheese. How does Southern seafood ensure that the fish you source from vendors is what is it said to be?
Two primary methods. First is institutional knowledge. We have a collective knowledge of over 100 years handling, sourcing and identifying all species of fish. If we are not familiar with a species, then it is our responsibility to become familiar. Second, we use only trusted, reliable sources that label and have absolute traceability for every item we carry.
When we were trading, the State of Florida had some pretty firm policies for what could be fished and when and what sizes and what quantities. Has that changed and do you think the forced scarcity helps the fish? That is, have the State’s efforts produced the intended effects of bringing back the grouper and snapper and other fishes to abundance?
Fish science is a mess. They try quotas, they try gear bans, they try closing of seasons, nature is very difficult to put on paper. There are always unintended consequences.
You close redfish to commercial fishing, they over populate, eat the hard shell crabs to extinction, so there are no more crabs to keep in balance the things nature had intended for them to help with.
They put heavy restrictions on Red Snapper 20 years ago, now they are everywhere. Commercial fisherman can not afford to fish for them. Federally imposed quota limits, requiring shares [a fee] to fish that quota that cost 3/4 of the amount of money they will get in the sale to the fish house. Fishermen are unable to catch grouper because the snapper are so aggressive. Nature’s balance is a complicated thing to legislate! Fisheries management is an oxymoron.
What is the brief day in the life of a fish boat captain? Granted you fish the Gulf of Mexico, not the Bering Straights, but are there similarities to that show?
Boat sizes kind of dictate the day of the Gulf of Mexico fisherman. We deal with small bandit boats, usually out 3-5 days. They travel anywhere from 100-200 miles per trip, sometimes 40-50 miles off shore. The size of these boats, mostly under 50 feet, dictate that the weather has to be good for those 3-5 days. The nice thing about these smaller boats is that the fish come back sooner, are fresher and are on ice upon capture. These boats usually have a crew of 1-3 persons. Sleeping is done on the deck or small bunks, if any, underneath. They cook over portable camp stoves. You can imagine what the conditions are like in the dead of summer or the coldest part of winter. The boats offer little protection from the elements. They fish sun up to sun down or later, gutting, baiting hooking, moving from area to area. It can sound like a dream come true for some avid teenage fisherman, but to work a commercial boat is not always a dream. Very little sleep, you feel the effects of anything greater than 2 foot seas. However, you are fishing for a living, and some would have it no other way.
There are several boats that port in the major fishing towns, Apalachicola, Tarpon Springs, Ft Myers, which are larger and stay out longer, sometimes 10-12 days. Nothing is frozen on these boats, so you can imagine what a fish is like that was captured on day 2 or 3 as compared to the fish captured on the last day of fishing. They have better facilities on the boat, but a larger crew, also. I do not buy directly from any of these boats. I imagine, except the target species and weather conditions, life is similar to those on the T.V. shows.
In your observations, does the FDA do enough, or anything, to make sure the food sold is as it ought to be: labeled correctly, wholesome, Country Of Origin [COO] identified?
They do the best they can with the limited resources they have. Most FDA inspectors are contracted State Inspectors. FDA tries to get around every couple of years to inspect your process and records, but they have limited personnel. The process I have to observe and comply with is very thorough. That is our industry at my level. On direct importers, at port of entry, they are all over the process. Everything is inspected. Human error or negligence is always a factor.
Does Southern Seafood go above and beyond the requirements of the FDA?
We follow the guidelines of Good Manufacturing Processes as outlined by the FDA through HACCP. Additionally, we go through State and USDC [US Dept of Commerce] inspections (which inspect on HACCP guidelines, too). HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) is THOROUGH enough!
Yes. Yes it is.
Referring to Olmsted once more, he writes that in NYC a firm tested sushi from various restaurants, including names well known, and found that over half of the sushi sampled did not contain the fish advertised. What are some steps or precautions consumers can exercise to help them make good choices when buying fish?
Know your fishmonger! Ask to see invoices or packing slips if you are concerned. I do this at restaurants if I am unfamiliar with them. I will gladly show any customer any information they want to see, 100% transparency. I think most governmental inspections are available to view. Make sure the fishmongers have not violated the specie substitution laws.
Sushi is a tough one, especially in certain preparations. The common one is escolar for “white tuna.” Escolar can be very hazardous if not handled properly, and can cause severe gastrointestinal problems. At least at our level (Southern Seafood), everything is raw in the case and easily identifiable.
You also have to account for the firm doing the testing, their procedures for handling test samples, the tests they use and their motives. There are despicable people (and good intentioned or unaware people) on both sides of the transaction.
Fish mishandling is, of course, dangerous. Little additional information needs to be offered to remind people to make safe storage decisions. What might consumers need to know about the toxicity of the diet of that fish or the harm filter feeders might bring if they were raised in dangerous waters? [Oysters, as an example, are filter feeders. They can live in toxic waters but if you eat that oyster, you may become sick.]
In this scenario you have to rely on all of those involved in the process. Are the waters where product is harvested properly monitored? Is the fisherman properly trained on how to capture and secure the fish? Is the fish house adequately inspected and are they following the GMP/HACCP guidelines? Is the consumer (retail customer or restaurant) taking proper care of the product once in their possession?
So, you really rely on the reputation and track record of those you’re buying from. Consumer warnings on items that are risky are on those items. We are required to inform our consumer (retail and wholesale) that all products should be fully cooked before consumption.
The Olive Oil Commission of California is a state level agency with the purpose of grading CA olive oils. They have a seal which appears on bottles indicating the olive oil passes muster, and that seal is a standard for quality. The State of Florida has a symbol for Florida Fresh. What is important for consumers to know about that symbol? What peace of mind can they have about the products they are buying?
The state of Florida does not have a similar seal. They utilize a brand and logo “Fresh From Florida” for marketing and the promotion of Florida products. It is attractive to the customer and people will tend to buy products that are promoted as such.
I’ve seen it abused, though, too. People will misuse it, claiming to use Florida a product but really using an import version of the same item or worse, a completely different product.
The reality of sourcing seafood nowadays is that it is a worldwide market. In order to give the customer the largest variety, we source seasonal fish throughout the world. Our staff works hard to inform and teach the consumer, which is a big part of what we do. That said, we work for 100% transparency; we never want to deceive the customer.
Checking quality of fish is an easy task. Here’s a video showing some basic tips about spotting fresh fish.
Here is the list of tips:
1 Check the eyes: they should be clear, not cloudy
2 Check the gills: they should be deep red and can be bright red.
3 Give the fish a sniff. It should smell of the sea and a clean fish smell. Any off smell will not get better on the way home.
4 The fish should have a natural slippery skin.
5 The flesh of the fish should be firm to the touch.
If you can, you should always buy fish from a fishmonger. Grocery stores which sell fish on foam and wrapped in plastic is to be avoided since there is no way to know the age of that fish or how is might have been mishandled.