What Do You Mean That The Fish Is Fresh?

With a cooking style that blends pork pyrotechnics — a Vermont pork trio of suckling confit, grilled belly and spice-crusted rib, for example — and a deep knowledge of New England fishing and farming, Tony Maws has become one of Boston's kitchen heroes. And with awards from the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef Northeast 2011) and Food & Wine (Best New Chef 2005), the country has taken notice as well. His Craigie on Main in Cambridge has roots in France, where Maws worked before opening the smaller Bistrot in 2002. This is his monthly letter from Boston.

I was in the fish department at the refrigerated case that holds the selections of the day. This national chain, which I'll leave unnamed, gives the impression that it sells "fresh" fish — and species we should feel morally and ethically good about eating. While my eyes scan the drab filets of char and salmon, pallid 20/30 scallops and peeled off-white and opaque shrimp, I hear a gentleman ask the young woman assisting him, "Is the swordfish fresh?"

"Yes sir, it just came in this morning."

My heart rate shoots up, pulse suddenly racing. I feel like I've been insulted. I'm feverishly fired up because I am strongly opinionated on this subject (some might say too strongly). It's as if they're starting the very monologue I deliver to my staff while explaining the confusing world of fish and freshness.

When the woman stated that the fish "came in this morning," it implied an acceptable level of quality, but the truth can be dramatically different.

Let's consider some important questions when thinking about fresh fish:

  • Where is the fish from?
  • How long did it take to get here?
  • Would he enjoy eating the swordfish (or cod or striped bass) if it was not caught that morning?
  • What if she had told the man that the fish was, most likely, flash frozen. Would he know if she never mentioned it? Could he tell?

And now, let's consider some facts:

1. Quite simply, you would not want to eat most fish caught that same day.

Commercial boats do not immediately gut and bleed their catch, so the fish goes into rigor mortis — or a state of muscle stiffness so extreme that it makes the flesh of it (or any animal) too chewy to be enjoyable. The fish eventually relaxes. (The time is partially determined by how the fisherman handles and cools the fish.) With a few exceptions like the Japanese method of ike jime (bleeding and destroying the spinal column with a spike, preventing the transmission of the neurons to the muscles to stiffen), the fish will need 12-24 hours to reach a state where the filet can be consumed enjoyably. The chances of you ever seeing a commercially caught fish within 24 hours is slim anyhow. So erase the idea that "fresh" means caught that day.

2. The distribution chain takes a while. Longer than you think.

More often than not, the path of a fish from boat to store isn't just point A to point B, as we might romantically envision. Instead, we should consider points C and D as well, and that probably includes myriad trucks, warehouses and refrigerators and all the hands that get them there. Most of the fish you find in markets is caught on larger boats that go out to sea for a few days. In the commercial world, these are called "trip" boats.

So, any halibut or tuna that these boats caught on the first day they dropped their nets are automatically a few days old when the boat comes to shore, and therefore not as fresh as fish caught on the last day of the trip. Chances are, this boat sells its entire catch to an auction, so the date of the fish is easily obscured. Many of the boats that go out for longer than a few days actually flash-freeze their catch so that it can make it back to shore with everything in a position to be sold. Which, by the way, isn't necessarily a bad thing (sacre bleu!). But that's a subject for another day.

3. Then there are the boats that do only go out for a day or two, which the world has come to label as day boat.

But what does "day boat" mean? And how many days? And if we are assuming only one day, then which day was it? Last Wednesday or yesterday? And what about the boats themselves? Nets? Gillnets? Lines? By-catch?

4. How a fish is caught and handled affects the life and quality of the fish profoundly.

No matter how big the boat, or how long at sea, the immeasurable number of variables — time on deck in the hot sun, thrashing, dragged in a net — all contribute to the fish's condition upon arrival at a port or shop.

5. The quality and perceived freshness of fish can depend on whether a fish is caught in the wild or farm-raised.

Is "farm-raised" a bad thing? Well, like a lot of vegetables and animals, it depends on the farm. Some farms produce fish en masse, feed them pellets of food made from other animal by-product and "color" their flesh so it looks better. This is not something I would feed my son. But Spain's Veta la Palma is a self-sustaining ecosystem where the fish is all but wild, and it results in a beautiful product. Without going into numbing detail about farming practices and sustainability, what you, as a consumer, should know is that processing farm-raised fish in a very highly-controlled environment produces fish that will last much longer (stay fresher longer) than some dayboat-caught fish that have smaller cooling and storage facilities than those needed to keep freshly caught fish in better shape.

Does this sound confusing? Good, then I'm explaining the complexity well. You see, everyone has a different take on what "fresh" fish means, and there are numerous reasons why the fish, as it lies waiting for your inspection, has glistening flesh or a parched, dulled look.

Standing in the famous, enormous and adrenalized Tsukiji Fish Market last week in Tokyo, I was amazed at the number of brilliantly gleaming fish, so vibrant I was convinced the fish could still flap off the table an into my basket. This fish isn't better because it's Japanese; it's not the longitude and latitude that keeps the kampachi translucent and shimmering. The attention to detail in each step of the fish supply chain is borderline fanatical. What makes store-bought fish lustrous and appealing — versus dull and unappetizing — is everything that happens once the fish is hooked (or netted).

So how does this help you as you're standing in front of the counter trying to figure out what's for dinner? Use your eyes and ask some questions. There is no one right answer to your question, but if you substitute the word "quality" instead of "fresh" in your query, you might be directed to a gleaming fillet with crystalline flesh — and chances are you're fishing in the right pool.

Also see: How Do You Define 'The Best' In Today's Restaurant World?