Spring is on the way and, like every year, it’ll bring with it those first seaside outings and the urge to eat fresh, light food. It’s a time of the year when we feel peckish just thinking about a plate of fish. The risk is that all this enthusiasm will be backed up by information that is often incomplete, at times misleading and, in some cases, downright dangerous, especially when food safety is at stake.
With the aid of researchers and dietitians, at Slow Fish 2017 we’ll be clarifying and debunking myths and lies about fish at the table, all to the benefit of our gastronomic pleasure, our health and—why not?—our wallets too!
1 – The best sushi with the freshest fish
How many times have we read this in beguiling restaurant advertising? But you can’t take chances with raw fish and to enjoy sushi, sashimi, tartare, carpaccio and marinades a few precautions need to be taken. If we are eating out, the fish must be blast chilled in accordance with the law, namely frozen in a blast chiller that reduces its temperature rapidly to -18°C. If we are preparing it at home, we should freeze it for at least 96 hours in a three or more star-rated domestic freezer. The risk is that we will accidentally ingest the dreaded anisakis, a particularly obstinate parasite that blights species such as anchovies, sardines, herrings, sea bass, cod, monkfish and calamari, and in human beings provokes inflammations to the stomach and intestine and, in some cases, very serious allergic reactions.
2 – Salmon is the king of all diets—including low-calorie ones
It’s a well-known fact for anyone (not to mention their guests) who has ever, at least once in their lives, had to weigh out their meals gram by gram that salmon is the most suitable fish for diets, including low-calorie ones. Yet there are many reasons not to eat it. We’re talking about farmed salmon, of course, as wild specimens are growing rarer and rarer—to the extent that we at Slow Food have set up a Presidium to protect River Okanagan sockeye salmon in Canada. Here we’ll mention four of the reasons, the others you can check out on the Slow Food website: i) on intensive farms hundreds of thousands of specimens ‘swim’ in a magma of mucus and excrement that increase mutations in pathogens, which are then free to spread in the Atlantic; ii) if the salmon are as pink as wild ones it’s because their feed contains a coloring agent; iii) farmed fish are fed not only with other fish but also with meal from abattoir waste (the lesson of the mad cow scandal has evidently not been heeded); iv) lastly, 100 grams of fresh salmon contain about 180 calories, while the same amount of anchovies contains 96, calamari around 70 and mussels fewer than 60. Note that these latter three species are not farmed and are less expensive.
3 – Fish steaks are more expensive, hence of higher quality
In reality they are simply more convenient insofar as they have no bones and can be cooked and eaten as if they were beefsteaks. We are referring here to the likes of swordfish and tuna, species whose life cycle lasts longer than a season, that cross a number of seas before they are fished, and through their meat pass on to us their full quotient of pollutants and heavy metals. Not to mention that intensive swordfish and bluefin tuna fishing has put a strain on stocks, preventing their young from growing and propagating above the risk threshold.
4 – I prefer fresh fish because I can be sure it’s local
It would be nice if this syllogism were true, but it isn’t. You only have to take a glance at any fish counter to see why. In Italy fresh fish from 40 countries—many on the Atlantic and Pacific—are unloaded every day, all with their own characteristics and problems. In this case it’s the label that comes to our rescue insofar as it has to list:
- Commercial denomination of the species—eg, ‘sea bass’—whereas the scientific name is not compulsory on the label for retail sale, but may be displayed on a separate card;
- Production method: ‘fished’, ‘fished in freshwater,’ ‘farmed’;
- Fishing zone: the sea in which the fish was caught must be shown in a way that may be understood by the consumer: FAO’s so-called major fishing areas (eg, ‘Area 47: Atlantic, Southeast’), or, in the case of farmed fish, the country of origin;
- Physical state: thawed, defrosted;
- The presence of additives: eg, ‘contains sulfites’ for crustaceans to which sulfites have been legally added.
5 – There’s no such thing as seasonality for fish
Well, there is actually, if you choose to buy fish from the seas closest to us: the FAO major fishing areas of ‘Atlantic, Northeast’ (Area 27) and ‘Mediterranean and Black Sea’ (Area 37). For these areas, the label may also specify a subzone (eg, ‘Product fished off Sestri Levante’), in which case we really can eat fish caught ‘at our front door.’
Recipes to enjoy this summer using ‘Italian’ and ‘local’ fish might thus feature anchovies, gurnard, dolphin fish, sea bass, amberjack, bream, sardines, sea bream and so on.
6 – Sole are all the same even if prices vary
And what about stockfish and salt cod? Or octopus? Sometimes prices vary by several euros and the difference is often excessive, unjustified by the cut of the fillet or the size of the specimen. So what’s behind this? The phenomenon, known as species replacement, is increasingly widespread due to the fact that the most sought after fish are being exploited to excess. When, despite what it says on the label, we find ourselves buying a Senegalese tonguefish (worth ?? euros) instead of a sole, cuskfish (worth ?? euros) instead of stockfish or salt cod, musky octopus (worth ?? euros) instead of octopus, we are victims of full-blown commercial fraud. So what can we do? How can we defend ourselves? The only way is to observe a fish’s anatomy if we are buying it to eat at home. But what if we’re eating out? All we can do is place our trust in the honesty of the cook.
7 – Clams and mussels are polluted
The species we should favor for their flavor, ease of preparation and nutritional properties. By choosing them, in fact, we avoid putting pressure on the five caught fish we consume most regularly and, besides, shellfish farming is the most sustainable form of aquaculture. So go for plenty of mussels, clams and oysters, mollusks that live on microorganisms in the water, which they filter, and hence don’t need feed—though the farm environment has to be safe to avoid substances or bacteria harmful to our health being filtered and accumulating in their organisms. Reputable farms generally opt for low density and change water regularly. Like all mollusks, farmed ones have to be sold in sealed nets with labels stating variety, sell-by date and origin.
8 – Eating more fish is good for your health
Nutritionists and dietitians, TV presenters and star chefs advise us to consume more fish because of its omega-3 content and the excellence of its flesh. But we all know that the stocks of most of the fish we consume regularly are now on the brink of collapse. Maybe we ought to rethink our fish consumption to make the Mediterranean diet more sustainable. How? By exploiting alternative sources of omega-3 (such as seeds, for example), lesser-known and less costly seasonal fish and fish with a short life cycle, whose price by no means reflects their nutritional value. Then there are the other forms of seafood that ensure eating pleasure and keep us healthy without harming aquatic ecosystems: hence jellyfish and seaweed, mollusks and crustaceans. Why not give them a try too?