Sunday, October 4, 2009

Seabourn Spirit 2009 Food & Wine Cruise - Its About The Fish!

Chef Bjoern arranged for a private inspection of a aquaculture farm outside Koper, Slovenia. Having a background in marine biology and worked as a biological aid for the United States’ National Marine Fisheries Service I was quietly very excited for this. I think the others were more like, “OK. That’ll be ‘interesting’”.

Our “guide” for our journey to the Fonda aquaculture farm in Piran, Slovenia, Irena Fonda, was a bit quiet at first, but this charming woman with a doctorate in molecular biology, came alive when we reached what we would learn is her family business. We boarded an ordinary 10 passenger pontoon boat with a bag of fish food, some water and what I thought was three bottles of champagne improperly iced upside down in a bucket of ice along with a very nice blue shopping bag.

The process of raising the fish(sea bass or locally known as branzino), which takes five (5) years was explained and it was emphasized that the nets are free of all antibiological agents which would kill organisms trying to grow on the nets, that would also introduce poison to the fish. As such a very labor intensive process of net replacement and manual cleaning is required. Also, rather than the fish being fed lots of low quality feed and artificial colors which would cause them to get fat (and thus to market weight, but at low quality, quicker) and look pretty (think color added to farmed salmon), these fish are fed less more often and the amounts eaten are measured every day. (My wife now understands why I have always said do not purchase farm raised fish: It isn’t terribly healthy, it looks funny to me and it doesn’t taste that good either.)

After stopping at the large round nets (each of which were pristine) with increasing larger fish we had a surprise: a very rare sighting of a young sea turtle. They were more excited than we were as they had never seen a sea turtle in their waters. Just a little bonus and a harbinger of the magic that was about to happen.

Tied off to one of the nets a presentation was made. The bag contained a Styrofoam box with a nurtured five year old sea bass fish beautifully presented and protected all of which was explained as to everything from the wrapping to the date tagging (so you know the fish is fresh) to the frozen gel used (as ice would melt and injure the meat). While the fish was then being prepared for some sashimi tasting (which was incredible) we savored gently smoked sea bass.

Oh, yes, that upside down champagne was actually a great treat. It was a Refusco wine prepared in a champagne style. The cool thing about the wine is that it is not purged in the process as is done with champagne, so the sediment is allowed to settle in the neck of the bottle, which is then opened. underwater (quite a feat!). It was a delicious and paired, surprisingly, well with the fish. (Those of the “You don’t drink red wine with fish” really have it wrong!!)
Then as we started to have the sashimi it was explained that Fonda also presses its own olive oil from its private grove and it also uses salt from the salt farm right next door…and it was all being served to us.

After a tour of the salt farm, which still produces the salt by hand processes that date back hundreds of years, Bjoern, the Seabourn chef then arranged for some sea bass to be delivered to the ship for the Deck Barbeque that evening.

What an experience!