A swim with the area’s first community-supported fishery, Local Catch Monterey Bay, proves a savory adventure.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
This was a pitch meeting like no other. The various “The supervisors did what?”s and “How can we make this water story less wonky”s come standard, but the table toppings made it different. No old pizza or hummus here. This was fresh crab for cracking.
The sweet meat represented a high from our team’s guinea-pig participation in the area’s first community supported fishery, Local Catch Monterey Bay.
The premise of a fish share mirrors that of farmer-style CSA boxes, and borrows from a model first introduced on the East Coast: Pay for a share of a harvest ahead of time and receive a rotating catch every week, in this case either a single share scaled for two people ($20 a week) or a family share for twice the size and price. Weekly enviro ace Kera Abraham and I split a single share; reporter Sara Rubin took home her own.
As fishermen struggle to navigate marine protected areas, catch quotas, dying fisheries and fickle market forces, and consumers pine for more local fish, it’s a potential breakthrough for conscious seafaring foodies.
“People get a good price,” says Oren Frey, who launched the program with another National Marine Fisheries Service Sea Grant fellow, Alan Lovewell. “Fishermen get predictable demand.”
But for each joy – like the finger food success of grilled herring – there was some pain: oysters that refused to open, rock cod that came in skimpy portions. But the outcomes, just like the project itself, are well worth attention. Another theme emerged early and often: LCMB’s nothing if not an adventure, as all virgin voyages should be.
Abraham describes just finding the first CSUMB pick-up as a treasure hunt: “Look near the greenhouse in a shed on a gravel path in a parking lot. If you’re confused, look for the other confused-looking people.”
At present, LCMB continues to add distribution points, including most recently Sweet Elena’s Cafe & Bakery in Sand City. The downtown Monterey station pick-up happens on the front porch of a MIIS building. In all locations, the ritual is consistent: Initial a clipboard, rummage through a cooler of ice for a Ziploc of fresh fish. Unfortunately for us, it comes in the thick of Tuesday afternoon deadlines.
“It can feel like a chore, considering the four-hour window couldn’t come at a worse time for me,” Rubin says, “but it’s also a lot like opening a present, especially since I’m a first-timer with most of the species.”
That exploration proved a profound benefit. “I’d never had fresh herring, and they were dark and oily and aromatic,” she says. “Just a bit of seasoning – olive oil, lemon, mustard, salt and pepper – and a few minutes on each side in the broiler, and I produced an experimental but very successful potluck sensation.”
Abraham liked where abundant herring fits in the food chain, and a healthy diet, even if its low market value might mean 12 for $20 isn’t the biggest bargain.
“But the rarity, sustainability and health considerations – it’s high in omegas and low on contaminants – made up for it,” she says.
On its website, Local Catch furnishes recipes and even instructional videos. For the herring, it was a battered Scottish treatment with mustard sauce. “I used my iPhone in the kitchen to follow along,” Abraham says.
Rubin took inspiration when they recommended a miso-based sauce for black cod, crafting a peanut butter-sesame-soy treatment for pan-fried filets.
Like the herring, black cod earns its reputation for tricky cleaning, making the fact that the Local Catch guts it for you (though you can request them whole) part of the pricing.
“The cod was so meaty, buttery and filling,” Rubin says. “It barely even needed the sauce, and lasted two lunches after serving as a dinner for two.”
While the cod allowed for multiple meals, other installments varied in bulk. The crab allowance equated to about market price for two; Rubin stretched it into four meals by way of crab salad with dijon mustard, fresh squeezed lemon juice, celery, tomato, red onion, salt and pepper served over greens. A pair of rock cod shipments, though, left stomachs more growling than glowing. The stash of 20 oysters seemed a robust harvest, but a number didn’t open for Rubin after 20 minutes in the oven so she trashed them rather than tempt food-safety fates.
One enticing takeaway, even when the oysters weren’t as local as ideal (Tomales Bay): An awareness of fisherman realities. “It requires tuning in to Monterey Bay conditions, like the rough weekend that made fishing a no-go and sent our buyers north to Pt. Reyes for oysters,” Rubin says. “It’s a good opportunity, both by consuming and watching short fishing videos, to reconsider the bay not just as scenery but as a resource.”
That phenomenon – call it putting the C in CSF – is a primary aim, according to Monterey Bay salmon fisherman James Miller, who helped connect Lovewell and company with different sources.
“It’s been a good way to let people know what they have in their backyard – they don’t have to buy from overseas,” he says. “And just wait till summer season.”
LCMB ekes by for now, with 170 members and an eye toward better returns with more sign-ups. Its sources enjoy receiving a higher price (about $0.25 more) than they would with big brokers.
The biggest obstacle for our team, ultimately, was maximizing the freshness mid-work week: Insane schedules meant prepping it Tuesday or Wednesday was more complicated than it likely has been for other local eaters.
But, then again, that urgency did make for supreme news-meeting eating.
LOCAL CATCH MONTEREY BAY Sign up for CSF shares ($20-$40/week) at www.localcatchmontereybay.com or 345-5153. • Deliveries arrive at drop-off points throughout the Monterey Peninsula every Tuesday.