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Talking tuna and more with Jeremy Brown

Nov 4th, 2012 | Category: Features

by Brent Cole

A fisherman, Slow Food advocate and teacher, Bellingham’s Jeremy Brown loves what he does. From keeping his salmon in as perfect condition as possible, to traveling as a delegate to the Slow Food Congress, and organizing tuna canning parties for locals, his passion is clear and sought after.

Jeremy Brown on his boat. FILE PHOTO BY PHIL HUMPHRIES

Raised in southwest England on a farm, Brown left the United Kingdom and traveled, meeting his wife in 1979 on the East Coast. A couple of years later, they ended up in Bellingham. “I worked a bit on fishing boats when I was traveling,” he said. “I got here and I thought, ‘what am I going to do to make a living?’” He decided to join the large local fishing industry (Whatcom County holds the largest non-Alaskan fishing license) and has been doing it ever since. “It just made a lot of sense to me,” he said.

Eventually, Brown assembled his own boat and crew, and traveled the waters fishing. “I did that full time for 10 years, that meant charging all over the ocean,” going as far as 400 miles off of New Zealand at one point. He added, “That’s the last of the buffalo hunters out there – a lot of fun, but you don’t have much time for a home life.”

In 2003, Brown sold that boat so he could spend more time on other projects and bought a smaller salmon boat, Barcarole (a fisherman’s song in Italian), that he could use to fish on his own. He continues to set sail solo, trolling for salmon and tuna, mostly off the Washington coast. “Tuna is kind of a sideline because it’s so migratory. One year they might not come in far enough,” he stated.

Brown has worked in the local fishing community to change the market for fish among restaurants and local fisherman. “We’ve been able to set our fishery up in Washington so that we’re fishing weekly for much of the season. It gives me the opportunity to deliver fish mid-week.”

With a season that runs from May through September, they spread their quota so it will last through the season rather than dumping the product into the market at one time.

All the work is done by volunteers directed by Jeremy Brown, who cleans and cuts the tuna into steaks, rents the kitchen, and provides the 14 large pressure cookers and stoves. The two-day event takes place at the Rome Grange, east of Bellingham. PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA ST. CLAIR

Over the last decade or so, Brown has seen a shift in the seafood market. “It’s been subtle, but I see it as a fundamental shift,” he said. “Ten to 15 years ago the market was flooded with cheap farmed fish. The restaurant market was flooded by convenience.”

Now, he said, restaurants have moved towards fresh fish to satisfy both chefs and customers, and Brown sees this change as vital in the slow food movement. “The middle class consumer is the one that’s been receptive to a different message than the undifferentiated commodity that was hoisted at them. We’ll look back at this and hopefully see it as a real turning point. We’ve got a long way to go…”

For Brown, it is logical that this pivotal shift is occurring with seafood. “Seafood is exactly what our ancestors ate,” he said, noting it is “logical that it would pivot around that. It’s probably the healthiest thing for us, it’s what our bodies want.”

While other fishermen cover the strong Seattle restaurant market, Brown focuses on Whatcom County, catching one King Salmon at a time and targeting high quality buyers like Willows Inn on Lummi Island and Cheese (Meats) Beer in Bellingham.

By catching one fish at a time, Brown is able to focus on the integrity of the fish. “I’m the only person who touches that fish, ever, before it reaches the restaurant. I can control that,” he said. “I can reduce to an absolute minimum the amount of times it needs to be handled. It’s just not meant to bump up against things – it’s very fragile. The fish is supported in water its entire life,” he added. “Minimizing the handling and figuring out how to do it with the absolute least stress, that’s been what I really focus on. And it seems to be working. I’m not alone in this – the Washington troll fleet is the leader in the quality handling for salmon. It’s amazing what’s happened in the last 10 years.”

The change in the fishing industry is one part of the rising interest and movement towards local and sustainable foods. Brown said he saw interest shifting in Bellingham around 2003, when the Slow Food movement began to take hold in the Bellingham area, thanks to Mateo and Jessica Gillis of Ciao Thyme and Mary Ellen Carter of Verde Specialty Foods, he said.

An active member of the movement, Brown has traveled to the Slow Foods Terra Madre Conference in 2004, 2008, and went again late last month. “It’s a great opportunity for me to network with the fishermen from other countries. We have a loose network globally – the slow food lens, if you will, allows us to hold these discussions at a different level.”

At this year’s conference, which hosts between 5, 000 to 6,000 participants, the focus will be on reconciling the different versions and ideals of different movements – from nation to nation as well as locally. “This year trying to reconcile all the different worlds… what are the fundamentals as world movement and how you can apply to leverage for everybody’s benefit,” stated Brown.

Along with the conference there will be a Saluni a Gusto, which is a huge food exhibit as well as the International Slow Food Congress. At the Congress, Brown hopes to see the beginning of real change. “It’s the first time we’re going to have an actual bottom up meeting, it’s been very top down up til now,” adding, “food is fundamentally democratic. This is a chance to turn that around. To work from the ground level up.”

Canning tuna

While fishing and the Slow Food movement are passions of Brown’s, he’s also sought after to lead tuna canning classes. “We used to can our own since it was fun,” Brown said with a chuckle. Initially, Brown and his wife would can tuna in their kitchen. “As friends joined it, we’d give jars away, they’d make wonderful presents. People would say ‘I’d like to help.’ That coincided with the start of the Slow Food movement locally.”

The tuna season runs from early July when the fish start showing up off the coast (100 miles) through mid-October when the weather starts turning. “It was a good average season (this year). The ocean is in a major shift right now, so it’s hard to predict. They came in really close which was great for the small boats, but then they moved around and was hard to predict.”

Ten years ago, Brown’s wife decided the canning process needed to get out of their kitchen, as “friends starting joining in. Then my wife said no way do I want this in my kitchen. And it just took off from there,” Brown added.

Each tuna starts out at 20 pounds and by the time it’s been trimmed, there’s 8 to 9 pounds of white flesh. That equates to roughly a dozen jars and in Bellingham, everyone wants a case of fish. “Bellingham group is very hands on, we have some serious food horders.” The fish that isn’t used for canning goes to organic farmers for their compost. “Fish scraps are a wonderful addition to a serious compost pile.”

Brown hosts four canning classes a year with Bellingham being the largest. “Bellingham is the big gig – that’s the home team,” he laughed. The classes occur the weekend after Thanksgiving, at the Rome Grange. The classes bring in between 80 to 100 people over the weekend, which equates to a ton of fish.

“We’ve scrupulously kept it as a cooperative community event, I don’t want to get into the seafood processing business,” said Brown. “I’m not encouraging other people to do that either. Doing it as a group is the most effective way of doing it for yourself.”

Half of those attending the class are first timers, according to Brown, while some people have been coming around for 10 years. “If somebody’s comfortable with pressure cookers, canning tuna fairly straight forward. I’ve found a lot of people are initially fearful of pressure cookers. For most people, it’s a very good idea to do with somebody’s who’s done it before.”

The classes, according to Brown, are organized chaos, which fits in perfectly with the Slow Food ideal. “Slow food is the balance of anarchy and bureaucracy and we try to keep that spirit,” he said with a smile.

“If there’s one big thread, people love to give home preserved food to each other. It’s a great way of sharing the fun of what we have,” said Brown. The class has also brought people together in other ways. “Folks get together to make sausages,” he said, “you can get together and preserve food and have a fun time doing it.”

Anyone interested in participating in the all-day tuna canning weekend at the Rome Grange on Nov. 24-25, should contact work party organizer Marla at Marlaken19@aol.com.

How to can tuna

Brown’s recipe for canned tuna come from Brittanny, France, where albacore fishing originated. “It’s the traditional recipe and it works. The starch in the carrot sweetens the fish perfectly.”

Ingredients

Albacore tuna

olive oil

sea salt

1 carrot

Directions

Wash the jars and lids. Leave to dry.

Trim the tuna to remove all bones and all dark spots in the flesh. Peel the carrot, quarter it lengthwise and cut into 1 inch pieces.

Cut the tuna into pieces that will fit into the jars. Fill the jars tightly, up to the level of the shoulder of the jar (this should leave a bit of head space). Add one piece of carrot to each jar. Add 1/4 teaspoon sea salt and 3 tablespoons olive oil to each jar.

Wipe the rims of the jars carefully. Screw the top on to hand tight.

It is important to follow the instructions that come with the pressure cooker, as each model is a bit different. Stack the jars in a pressure cooker. Add water to the cooker and close. Cook the jars at 15 psi for 90 minutes.

Allow the cooker to cool before removing the jars.

Published in the November 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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