May 23, 2010
Lest readers of this website get the impression that everything we eat has four legs and a tail, I’m setting the record straight. Our diet is balanced and nutritious. Gracing our plates are grains, rice, legumes, a wide variety of vegetables and fruit (apples to yams!), shellfish and fish. Trout, catfish, salmon, Lake Erie perch in season, and tuna.
I even love canned tuna, but here, I get persnickety. Albacore? Ick (added Ick: high mercury levels). Chunk lite canned in water? Double ick (but lower mercury). Bland bland bland. The only time these products see a serving dish is in tuna noodle casserole which has enough other ingredients, and Tabasco, to make up for the fish having no taste.
Give me Italian tuna, packed in olive oil. In a pasta sauce, on linguine. With a sprinkle of real Parmesan. Bill makes a fine tuna fish salad sandwich with canned Italian tuna; it’s a treat when I just can’t face the kitchen and Bill’s in charge of putting nutrients in our bodies. Available at most grocery stores, both Cento and Genova Tonna are dolphin safe. Cento is gluten free.
A bit more expensive are Spanish Ventresca and Bonito. Ventresca comes from a triangular area on the bottom of yellowfin tuna, near the head. The flavor is subtle and delicate but full; the quality is only outranked by Bonito del Norte.
Bonito is packed as whole fillets, not mashed up slivers, in a jar with olive oil. To quote the importer, “Once you taste this exquisite product, your opinion of tuna will change forever.” They’re not kidding. This product is harder to find; World Market carried it a while, and West Point Market in Akron, too. Available on-line, but it’s not on your standard grocery store shelf. Ortiz is a good brand.
A breed of tuna that swims near the shore off northern Spain, Bonito is the most valued fish in the region. The importer’s hype explains that “There, bonito are caught by fishermen lining the shore, using bamboo rods with long lines. Many small, traditional boats also fill the bay, coming back to port to take their catch to the fish markets. At dawn, the best tunas are separated from the catch and prepared the very same day. This product from Serrats is only made from bonito caught from July to September, when the white tuna fishing season becomes a real economic and social event in the riverside villages.”
I want to believe, but the pole fishing method dates back to the 1900s when neighbors fed the neighborhood, so it’s difficult for me to accept it’s still done. Maybe this quaint technique is true for this specific brand of Bonito but for the rest of the tuna we eat, the reality is different. Like big time different.
A Godzilla-sized biz
Tuna is a monstrous business. Over the past 50 years, worldwide consumption has increased tenfold, from 0.4 million to over 4 million tons. Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Spain, Italy, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand are the main producers; even France has a large bluefin tuna fishing fleet.
Most of the tuna today are caught by fleets of purse seine and longline. A purse seiner is a boat that uses an encircling net that targets tuna but also catches their young or juveniles, and other fish too. Which is why we should check our canned tuna for the “Dolphin Free” advisory.
Longline-caught tuna isn’t immune from destroying sea creatures either. The World Wildlife Federation says that in 2,000, tuna longliners set 1.2 billion hooks catching untold number of turtles, seabirds and sharks. Pole-and-line caught tuna is less common but is a better choice so I hope that Bonito marketing copy is true.
We’d like to believe we’re eating more tuna because there are more swimming in the oceans. But no, that’s not the case. Technical innovations have increased the ability to detect their presence, decreased the time to set and retrieve nets and bring the catch aboard, which has increased the time available for searching for fish. Bigger too, is the size of the vessels; larger vessels are faster, and can search greater areas than smaller boats.
I’m not going deep into the political ramifications or soundness of eating tuna. But here are a few facts:
- Bluefin tuna grow slowly and take longer to reproduce. This, coupled with their exorbitant value in the sushi market, has led to severely depleted populations.
- Two species caught by purse seine gear, yellowfin and bigeye, are fully exploited or overexploited. (Waaaaa! I love yellowfin!).
- Bigeye and yellowfin, also known as ahi, are common in sushi. Both types, along with bluefin, are high in mercury and should be eaten infrequently, if at all.
Many countries and tuna organizations, companies, and scientists (yes, tuna scientists) are aware of, and attempting to restrain the overfishing of tuna around the world by limiting catching capacity. But as many fishermen often do not respect quotas (which are often hard to check), another suggestion is limiting the amount of vessels. Sushi-loving Japan. the world's largest consumer of bluefin, is against any rule restricting tuna (and whales for that matter).
Fishing and eating tuna in the U. S. of A.
Highly migratory, tunas are found in all of the major temperate and tropical oceans and are capable of attaining large sizes. On April 10th, a sport fisherman in the Outer Banks of North Carolina caught a 99 inch, 522 pound bluefin. To understand what a fish that enormous means in economic terms: In 2010, a giant bluefin weighing 513.67 pounds was sold at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market for over two million buckeroos. And the OBXer was bigger!
When we were lucky enough to vacation around Labor Day in the Outer Banks, I’d postpone my September 6th birthday dinner if we were too tired from driving, unpacking and getting settled in to enjoy the meal. A few days later, we’d buy fresh-caught tuna from Risky Business Seafood in Hatteras and have a feast.
Grilled tuna and cubanelle peppers with mustard and caper vinaigrette has been my celebratory dish for the past four years and will be this year too. On other rare occasions, when the grocery store has a hunk they’ll cut rather than frozen-then-thawed prepackaged steaks, we’ll have it for dinner.
Three Fridays ago Heinen’s had the tuna but the cubanelles looked gnarly and pathetic. A pepper we’ve never had, Ancient Sweets, were gorgeous. Smooth skinned, deep red. Fresh. The produce guy said they’re a bit sweeter than Italian frying, so that’s what I bought. They were worth the extra few cents, and as they are very long, they didn’t fall through the grill.
Bills says tuna is easy to grill. Unlike beef, you can watch the process as the line of white, cooked, tuna moves up the sides of the steak. You’ll see in the photo below that we like our tuna rare. Like we like our filet. The peppers are lightly brown, limp ribbons. The yellow fluff is saffron rice. The wine, which you don’t see, was a California syrah which I had to arm wrestle the wine assistance person for as he had only six bottles hidden in the back. He may have wanted them for himself.
We had tuna leftovers on Saturday. Bill zapped the raw away in the microwave, forked the fish with mayo and finely chopped celery, and made sandwiches on toasted sourdough. I drizzled a bit of vinaigrette and put a pepper on mine.
Of course you and I should be wary of eating tuna. Too much isn’t good for us or the tuna. Or our wallets. As tuna supplies diminish, expect prices to rise.