Going on vacation with your parents when you are 28 is a bit weird. But whatever, I am taking any excuse to get out of town these days, more importantly near an ocean, so when my dad asked me if I wanted join him for the Seafood Festival in Saint Andrew’s, New Brunswick I said you’re darn right I do.
New Brunswick save my soul.
Saint Andrews is on The Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tides in the world. The height of the tide is somewhere between 3.5 and 16 meters at its most powerful and displaces something like a billion tons of water through each cycle. The first few nights we stayed at an old colonial-style inn on the top of a hill overlooking the bay, owned by a friend of my father’s, a chef of kindred spirit, Chris Aerni, with whom he’d be collaborating on a dinner during our stay. I skulked around there like Sylvia Plath; I was the sad adult-child who wears the same sweater and no shoes everyday. The ghost in the wide stairwells, a pale shock against all the mahogany. No one bothered me if I suddenly walked away to sit in the garden. I stared off into space, took forever to come down for breakfast, and asked for water all the time. I laid in bed each night, my feet pointing towards the sea, imagining that tide pulling all misery out of me and filling me back up with cold clarity.
One morning I came downstairs and there was a man with long gray hair standing by one of these big carved mirrors, holding a huge armful of all different varieties of the most beautiful peonies I have ever seen. They reflected in the glass so it looked like there were twice as many. Graziella, Queen of the Rossmount Inn, Chris’s wife, rushed over and started gushing about the flowers and introduced him. He very gently explained to me that he had more than 150 types of peonies, and about 5,000 varieties of flowers all together where he lived, close by on a plot of land. He said his motto is “flowers make everything better,” and that they are better for your heart than a Big Mac. After he left Graziella told me that about 20 years ago he sort of hermited himself away, built a shack in the middle of a field of flowers, and now comes out only once a week to sell them to different B&Bs, sometimes the farmers market. A man in the woods barricading himself against a harsh world through a fortress of flowers. Sigh.
Shortly after that, I decided enough was enough with this big melancholy monkey on my back, and ENOUGH MAZZY STAR FOR GOD’S SAKE. I listened to Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust one thousand times and decided to get my act together and get really keen instead, get all Cousteau up in this business and have myself a zesty little educational ocean adventure of fun.
First things first: Clam digging with Larry! Larry works as a dishwasher/confidant/observer/peacekeeper/instigator at the Inn. He is fiery and precocious yet so earnest and sweet I have trouble finding it in my heart to characterize him (I ran into this dilemma with a lot of people I met here). Born and raised in Bocabec in Charlotte County, he raised his own children here as well, plus grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. He is only in his 60s, looking real good, and president of the Clam Diggers Co-op, which he has made a living at most of his life. He wears shirts that say stuff like: “There will be time to rest when you’re DEAD!” which was good reminding. When his kids were small he sent them to school with lobster sandwiches and they would trade with the “town kids” for their peanut butter or bologna ones. Lobster was “poor man’s” food in those days, but I’m pretty sure he knows how rich he is.
Larry took me to a beach at low tide, and we walked and talked and he told me all kinds of stories that would blow your mind (like how he can catch lobsters with a broomstick and a hook). As we walked he pointed out little holes in the sand that occasionally bubbled. Getting down close, he drove in this rake-like claw shovel tool thing he had and dug. And there, about a foot down, buried and all hidden away were the clams! Cute little happy little clams! It made me goo-goo ga-ga happy. These ones are “steamers”—white-shelled with a hint of mauve. If he were digging for money today, a pound of these would fetch him 80 cents, but today they won’t get him anything, not even us lunch, because there is a red tide: a naturally-occurring algal bloom that affects some kinds of marine life-clams and mussels, mostly in the edibles department. Larry told me it doesn’t bother him though because these days he likes to make more time in his life for slowness, taking all THIS in—as he gestured around the beach, rocky and teeming with life, little crabs running all around under the seaweed and the osprey plunging like bullets into the sea after fish.
Larry also led us to a beaver pond deep in the forest behind his house to forage for cattails (you should never eat the ones that grow in the ditch on the side of the road—think of all that road salt and pollution they are growing in). These were to be an ingredient in this dinner my dad would be cooking as part of the Seafood Festival, as well as other sea greens we foraged from the Passamaquoddy Bay like sea asparagus, pouse pieds, goose tongue greens, and samphire. The Saint Andrews Seafood Fest is meant to highlight the bounty of all les fruits de mer that the Bay of Fundy has to offer. This includes the sweetest lobster and scallops I have ever had, mussels, clams, and various fish. The festival also serves as a platform to discuss issues surrounding oceans, fishing, and what it means for the people involved in the industry, and how all this affects those of us who want to eat these things.
The issues are extremely varied and complex, magnified even more so by Ocean Wise. They’re a “Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood,” according to their website. The program also serves as a label on restaurant menus and other food services, as they work directly with all types of suppliers “ensuring that they have the most current scientific information regarding seafood and helping them make ocean-friendly buying decisions.” When you see the Ocean Wise symbol, that’s supposed to signify that you’re making an environmentally friendly seafood choice, as “the Ocean Wise logo next to a menu or seafood item is an assurance that the item is a good choice for keeping ocean life healthy and abundant for generations to come.”
It all sounds good on theoretical paper, and in general is a good idea, but the problem with Ocean Wise is that yes, they are protecting our oceans, but because their criteria is based on how huge factory fishing type industries operate, they are not taking into consideration a certain responsibility to the people whose livelihoods depend upon fishing close to their homes. AKA, there is no sense of local business in Ocean Wise’s blanket approach.
A perfect example is that Canadian Atlantic lobster is not recommended on their list of acceptable seafood items. So in Saint Andrews, where you can literally see the lobsters being taken out of the traps in the harbor in front of the restaurant you are eating at, if that restaurant has an Ocean Wise stamp on their menu, they can not serve you that lobster. Instead you might get Blue Cod from New Zealand. You can see the flawed logic here. The shift that has to take place with Ocean Wise to be even more effective is to start implementing a localized model for what they deem sustainable or unsustainable seafood, and making their lists regional. These small fishing towns know how to take care of the ocean; it is in their best interest to do so and have been doing so for a long time. There just needs to be some concerted effort to revitalize and make people aware of exactly what is going on. Larry said it himself: He has a major interest in keeping the water good, because he’s not making a buck if the meat is bad.
Speaking of lobster, LOBSTER ROLLS! You find these all over the place here, and are pretty much what Larry probably gave his kids for lunch: a bunch of lobster, mixed with a bunch of mayonnaise, slapped on some white bread or a bun with a little iceberg lettuce. It is HEAVEN, and I ate about twenty of them. I ate lobster every day as well as fried clams, deep-fried dulse, and all varieties of fishes and crustacean delights.
Award for best lobster roll around here has to go to Ossie’s, est.1957 by Roseanne. (Although really, it's neck-in-neck with the lobster sandwich/Caesar salad/cola combo my friend Lisa Riordon and crew whipped up for a staff meal after a hard day of prep at The Rossmount, with the sun and the view and the clouds on the side.) Roseanne asked me to sign their guestbook that she’s had going since they opened, volumes and volumes holding the signatures of those “from away.”
I also ate embryos out of the belly of a short-nosed sturgeon, or as you fancy people like to call it: caviar. That’s right, I now know more than I will ever need or want to know about how caviar makes it from the inside of one of these fish to the top of my blinis, and that is good enough to me. For a play-by-play and tutorial to the fun and games, I’ll have a 101 for you tomorrow.
For now, I’ll tell you this: Breviro Caviar is housed in a modest white, unmarked building in Pennfield, New Brunswick. They farm a species of sturgeon called Acipenser brevirostrum, one of the rarest of the 26 species of sturgeon left in the world. Trading of wild stock in this species is banned globally, and hasn’t even been available for the last hundred years because of over-fishing. In Canada only three people still hold sturgeon fishing licenses, and when they die (I think some are in their 80s), that is that. Breviro, with an innovative team of biologists, engineers, conservationists, and aqua culture specialists are turning to smart, sustainable aquaculture to keep those rare eggs on your canapés.
Personally, I have had enough caviar for a while, but their approach to fish farming is something that, from what I can tell, is going to be the way of the future. In short, using small container system operations rather than decimating oceans and lakes with huge industrial operations as in much of the farmed salmon industry. It also takes care of the problem of keeping local people in jobs. I will be the first to admit, at this point wild-caught fish tastes better. We even sampled some incredibly rare, wild-caught Atlantic sturgeon caviar, which definitely had a more complex flavor, although by this time I was pretty over the whole fish eggs thing. But from a conscious point of view, we are just going to have to deal, and remember, these are the cards we have dealt ourselves, and that might mean living off of aquarium fish until eternity.
Previously - Vegetable State of Mind