They look wearily out from the seafood display at Coles, eyes slightly sunken but nevertheless fat and shiny.
And it’s the best bargain on the floor, Atlantic salmon heads for 5 or 6 $ per kilo. They are at peace after a hard life crammed into pens and fed nothing but cylindrical pellets, shot across the water from gunboats, for which they do battle at close quarters, pectoral to pectoral, while the smell of urea wafts up from the bacterial mats beneath them on the sea floor. None could have known a good night’s sleep in their lives but it’s still better than the world outside. Occasionally there are storms, or seals break through the nets and escapees swim off freely for the first time. But soon they discover the truth of Orwell’s slogan; “Freedom is Slavery!” for there is nothing to eat out there in the wide world that looks or behaves like a fish meal pellet and they find themselves completely at a loss; growing gaunt and fading slowly away even in the midst of plenty. Enterprising locals hook or net them while they are still prime; they will always strike at a pellet. Farmed fish are too fat anyway and the west coast Indians of North America before the white man apparently felt the same way about fat fish but for more practical reasons.
A real wild salmon is a pelagic fish which means they swim freely anywhere most of the time except during the spawning season when they congregate at the mouths of the great rivers and are easily netted. The fish stop eating when they enter fresh water and battle their way inland against the current for as much as 500 kilometres to their spawning grounds, following memories and impossibly diluted scent trails to arrive at the gravel beds where they were born. When it is all said and done they die and wash up on the shingle where predators and scavengers of all stripe take them coming, going and gone. Skunks, ravens, eagles, bears, lynx and cougar- transfer their nutrients to the surrounding forests which grow giant trees like nowhere else in the world. But somewhere in between, the skinnier and exhausted fish were caught, smoked and dried by man for winter rations and there were major trading routes by which these were packed all the way back down by the inland people to trade to coastal tribes. The trade must have been an unimaginable hardship. The Indians would have stuck to the higher country as best they could, for along the river trenches the huge igneous mountains, thousands of metres high stabilize at murderous grades as was noted by uncounted Chinese labourers who later perished in the Fraser Canyon while building our road and rail infrastructure. And the Coast Range continues all the way north to Alaska, borded by the ocean and the rivers pour into the cold, deep fjords which are absolutely perfect for….salmon pens!
The Norwegians were just the people to put them there; provincial governments are always suckers for moneyed big-mouths from out-of-town, bearing gifts. It hasn’t done the hugely important wild fishery any more good than the forest industry however. In early spring the eggs in the river gravels hatch and the fry begin their journey to the ocean, growing en route in waters fertilized by the bodies of their ancestors. Beset by increased water temperatures, silting and faster run-off they nonetheless arrive at the salt water and the pens, where disease is rife. The farmed fish are fed fungicides and antibiotics to control disease, and unprotected exposure means a high mortality for the young wild fish. Worst of all are the sea lice that swarm around the pens and an attack by two or more is enough to kill a salmon fingerling. But the permanent residents have been coddled along in hatcheries and aren’t put out until they are relatively large and strong. As for their own feed, as a cold-blooded organism they grow at a fairly economic yield around 1:10. We take everything so for granted, as if wild salmon or the tenfold mass of baitfish, and bycatch that make up the captive’s rations is unlikely to have had any other traditional takers in the food chain. But a shortage of seals has turned killer whale diets to smaller and previously unnoticed creatures; specifically sea otters whose own diet was sea urchins and now the giant kelp beds are being decimated by the same. They were the nurserys for the young fish of so many species, including wild salmon. Who would have thought that other creatures near the top of the chain might be essential in maintaining balance and productivity on our behalf. But in the antipodes there are no wild salmon so farmed fish are all we get. Although the same pellets and chemical brews sustain them North and South don’t worry, or at least take comfort - it was worth the sacrifice.
Comfort Food – Fish Head Chowder
Take 3 large salmon heads as fresh as you can find, which should be about $5 worth and carefully scale anywhere that has been missed. Rinse and put them in a medium pot, cover well with water and bring to a boil. When they are cooked but still intact remove from the broth, cut away and discard the gills. These have a very unpleasant texture and if you don’t get rid of them early you never will. Return the heads to the broth and meanwhile cut a large potato into thumbnail sized cubes, and a large onion to a similar size. When the heads have fallen to pieces completely and the gelatinous bits separate easily from the bones you have gone far enough for the moment. Allow to cool somewhat and remove the fins and a lot of of the bones with a fork. These are surprisingly plentiful but so thin they are almost insignificant in terms of the mass of meat and gelatin you are getting for your money. If you let the broth cool now for later use, a fork will stand up in it.
Add the onion and potato and go on cooking until these are tender. Add basil, black pepper and any other sweet herbs like marjoram or chopped fresh parsley that would be nice with fish keeping in mind the milk hasn’t yet been added; and to make something truly wonderful add an optional large handful of cooked and shelled prawns. Add the better part of a litre of whole UHT milk. It’s only a dollar a litre on special and is revolting in tea or coffee but here it is perfect. Add salt to taste – you have left it out until the end so the meat and vegetables will tenderize more quickly and it should still be just the right temperature to serve. With a loaf of bread this will make a capital meal for at least 3 people. Serve in a large bowl with a small saucer alongside in which to spit the endless bones of infinitely varied shapes and dimensions; not suitable for small children. Too bad for them - somehow we are wired to measure proteins - not necessarily as a flavour so much as a feeling of pure pleasure and this has it all.
First published here: