The Adventure Continues
Five days in Alaska has left me with an extraordinary respect for the last wild food we eat - the people who catch it - and the way this fishery is managed.
And a new understanding of just how difficult fishing can be. I managed to catch a rockfish, but the big fish, the one that might have been a fairly large halibut - got away. I struggled with that fish for what seemed like forever, fighting the mysterious unseen creature, feeling his strength, trying desperately to haul him from the water. And then, suddenly, the line went slack; I pulled my line out of the ocean to find nothing but an empty hook.
Fishing, for those who choose it, is more than a job. It's a mission, a calling, a way of life. We met entire families who live on ships, the children helping out as soon as they can toddle. And we began, slowly, to learn the mysterious hierarchy of fishermen.
Trollers put out hooked lines, catch the highest quality fish - but get the least respect. Their small boats require the least capital outlay. Gill netters are next up the food chain - they set long nets into the ocean, hauling them out 6, 7 or 8 times in a day, counting the catch.
They pull the salmon quickly from the nets, counting as they go, throwing them into icy holds filled with chilled saltwater (salt water does not freeze).
Then the nets go out again. And again. Tenders- big storage boats, under contract to the fish processors - come by periodically to collect the fish, allowing the fishermen to continue fishing. It's light here, this time of year, from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. The days are long. (One fisherman told me he makes enough in 2 months to support his family through the year. But these are long days. Summer's not for sleeping.)
Meanwhile fish and game people are carefully counting the catch, ensuring sustainability. The King Salmon catch was so abundant this week that the season closed early; they'd caught enough, and the fish got a break.
We did a little fishing ourselves. This is Francis Lam with his gorgeous rockfish. (I caught one too, but it was smaller, and not nearly as pretty.)
Meanwhile, I learned a few things about cooking fish.
1. Be patient; don't cook it too soon. You want the fish to go into rigor mortis, and then out, before it sees heat. We cooked this rockfish the day Francis caught it. It was mushy. We cooked a just-caught ling cod too, and it was bouncy. It would have been smarter to wait a day, rest the fish; they would have tasted better.
2. Spot prawns are awesome!
This is a spot prawn trap. We set out three.
Although the catch was disappointingly small, it made great eating.
The wonderful Renee Erickson (Boat Street Cafe, The Whale Wins, etc.) was in charge of this. She served the bodies raw, then quickly crisped the heads - my favorite part. I could have eaten these forever.
3. And then there's roe. It turns out that a great deal of the salmon - and most of the herring - caught in Alaska is prized for the roe. Almost all of it goes to Europe or Japan. What a shame!
This is salmon roe being processed. The sacs are pulled apart, the roe swirled in a brine bath, then sorted.
In Japan they like soft roe; Europeans tend to like the more mature roe, later in the year, which has a harder shell. Me? I like roe of any kind. We took the roe from the salmon we caught, and I combed through it, removing the outer casing. Then - having absolutely no idea what I was doing - I briefly brined it in a salt water bath, strained it, then cooked it in butter in a double boiler. I added some rice vinegar, a splash of soy, and served it over scrambled eggs. I think it was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten.
A few more Alaska moments....
Imagine this cove beneath the moonlight, mist hugging the mountains, whales cavorting through the water. Imagine the sound of their spouts, the low moan as they converse, the splash as they leap, tails waving, into the night air. I can't remember a more magical evening.
The next day we landed at Elfin Cove, an improbable settlement straight out of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Strolling the boardwalk that curves through town, their version of a sidewalk, you hear the plash of water, continually encountering these small, enchanting waterfalls.
This is the longest zip line in the world, in Hoonah. Completely exhilarating, zooming through the air.
And this is the one must-have Alaska souvenir. People were trying to buy them off our feet. They're the epitome of Northern Chic.