Before I started ordering most excellent chickens from Genesis Growers, I had unfairly derided all chicken as "tofu on legs," a flavorless protein that seemed every year to grow progressively less flavorful and, ironically, more popular.
Lately, I've been feeling the same way about salmon. The accessibility of the fish and, I believe, its beauty on the plate, has earned it a place on most Chicagoland menus. Much of this fish, alas, is not worth the effort required to chew it.
Make no mistake. Salmon is a wonderful fish. It's very popularity, however, has led to a radical increase in salmon farming. Much like the massive concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that house millions of pigs and cows and chickens, salmon farms are frequently environmental disasters. In many cases, salmon farmers – much like animal farmers – rush their stock through the growing process and bring them to market fast and flavorless.
Last week, I was invited to spend a few days at Skuna Bay, a salmon fishery in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The Skuna Bay fish farm is surrounded by some of the most beautiful country I've ever seen: snow-capped mountains lined with pine, fresh air blowing in off the ocean, clean water, and nowhere in sight a smokestack nor even much terrestrial life except for the random bear and a handful of salmon fishermen.
Skuna Bay makes an effort to run their fishery in a sustainable manner, by limiting the number of salmon they nurture and by putting into place other practices that ensure our grandchildren will be able to eat salmon. Skuna Bay is the only salmon farmer in the world to receive Best Aquaculture Practices certification for multiple farms by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, the leading standards-setting organization for aquaculture seafood. All of which would mean little if this were not stratospherically tasty salmon.
One night, in the kitchen at The Lodge at Golden River, we sampled some sashimi, just salmon loin, sliced thin, served raw by Chef Terry Macdonald, with a bowl of wasabi and soy on the side. One taste, and I knew I didn't want any of the wasabi and soy. Although it's a very good complement to raw fish, I just couldn't bring myself to cloud the flavor of the fish with any condiment. The fish was so clean tasting, so rich with light-tasting fat, so beautiful just to look at.
We eat a fair amount of salmon at home, and we try to get the good stuff. From the Costco in Melrose Park, you can even get fresh Copper River salmon, a fine piece of fish; at that same Costco you can also get frozen salmon, which we found almost inedible. Chicagoland restaurants carry salmon at both high-and low-ends of the quality spectrum, but none are quite like Skuna Bay. It's not another damn salmon; it's almost tastes like a different species.