Roche Bros. Sea Trace Program
With the proliferation of farmers’ markets on the Cape these days, it’s fairly easy to know where your vegetables, fruit and, increasingly, meat come from. But when it comes to seafood, unless you catch it yourself, have a great fishmonger or belong to a CSF (community supported fishery) program it’s not so easy to track its provenance. Interest in supporting local businesses coupled with recent stories in the news about fish being mislabeled on restaurant menus has resulted in customers putting pressure on retailers to do a better job sourcing locally caught, sustainable fish.
Roche Bros., an independent, family-owned Massachusetts-based chain of supermarkets with a bustling presence in Mashpee, has responded to such consumer demand by creating a seafood traceability program in conjunction with their long-time seafood partner, Foley Fish. Their Sea Trace program provides transparency regarding where the seafood at Roche Bros. comes from and validates that the seafood is sustainably harvested and naturally processed. Customers are able to scan the qr (quick response) code for selected species and see a photo of the fishing boat, the location fished, and even a description of the fishing gear used.
“At rRohe Bros. we have always been committed to offering responsibly harvested seafood,” says Seafood Director Arthur Ackles. “Sea Trace provides an unparalleled level of traceability from the store all the way back to the boat; customers can see the boat itself, how the fish was caught and the methods used to catch the fish. We also list the fishery management programs associated with each species, because we think it’s important for our customers to know that we’re selling local fish from local waters that are managed to prevent overfishing and ensure sustainable species.”
Knowing who caught your fish where is important. But equally important is how that fish is handled and how quickly it gets to your dinner table. That’s where Foley Fish comes in. Foley, a seafood processor based in Boston and new Bedford, Massachusetts, has been working in partnership with Roche Bros. for over 30 years. At the invitation of Peter ramsden, who together with his wife Laura Foley ramsden represent the fourth generation owners of Foley Fish, we got a tour of the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction and the Foley Fish processing plant.
The Port of New Bedford is America’s number one fishing port, generating economic activity in excess of $1 billion and is home to one of the nation’s last remaining fish auctions. Vessels from every major East Coast port unload their catch here, including every important commercial species from cod and haddock to sea scallops.
We met Peter at the Foley Fish facility in new Bedford at 6:30 one steamy July morning and drove around the corner to the fish auction. Although the 30 members of this private auction would be placing bids from their computers in Philadelphia to Portland, Peter explained we wouldn’t see a lot of action on the floor. Indeed, other than a few buyers who were examining the totes of fish, picking up random fish and sniffing their gills and poking their flesh, the room was virtually deserted. By the time we got to the auction, 61,000-plus pounds of seafood comprising 20-25 different species of mostly groundfish had been weighed, boxed, iced and placed in the auction cooler. The auction starts at six in the morning every weekday and by seven the entire inventory is sold. The most striking thing about being in that huge refrigerated warehouse was the smell. Or perhaps better said, the lack thereof. Taking a deep breath, one gets a lungful of sea air: fresh, clean, briney. nothing more.
According to Peter, the quality of fish up for sale at the auction varies widely and ends up in a range of venues, from high-end restaurants and hotels to big box retailers. Foley Fish buys what Peter calls top of the catch. His buyers, who are usually the first at to arrive at the auction, look for fish with shiny, firm skin, translucent flesh, and bright red blood. When you press on the flesh with your finger it should spring right back leaving no indentation. Apparently, checking the eyes is not a good indicator of quality, as frequently they get damaged when the fish is being landed. Peter holds up a haddock that is almost board stiff. A good sign, he tells us, as fish in rigor mortis have a longer shelf life. And shelf life is flavor.
Back to Foley Fish for a tour of the processing, er, process. The huge room is kept at a brisk 50°F, the cooler at 32° and the freezer at -20°. Peter explains that they don’t warehouse fish, but rather take orders from their customers and cut fish to order. Observing their fish cutters in action is like poetry. They are fast and fearless and leave almost no flesh on the frame. Because they are dealing with the most perishable of proteins, Foley Fish makes their own special 12° flake ice, twenty tons of it a day. The flake ice makes the fish that much colder and that much fresher. Again, a deep breath yields nothing more than a whiff of the sea. Peter tells us that the smell people associate with seafood is actually bacteria generated by the aging process. Some processors use additives to mask the smell and bleach to hide the yellowing of flesh. Foley Fish uses neither additives nor bleach.
Foley Fish packs their fish in metal tins, which Peter explains keeps the cold better than plastic and helps retard bacteria. The fillets are separated with sheets of parchment paper, which acts like a layer of skin, keeping the fish fresh and moist. Through the entire process, from pier to market, the fish has been tagged for 100 percent traceability. By law, they are required to keep records of the fish they process for 90 days.
Following our tour, we are joined in the Foley Fish test kitchen by Josh naughton and Chef Brian Dunn of Roche Bros. to sample oysters from the seven different growers being carried by the markets this summer. Brian, whose title is Product Development Chef, grilled some oysters and seasoned them with two different butter sauces, one made with Old Bay Seasoning, lemon juice, Worcestershire and fresh garlic, another with Peter Luger Steak Sauce. His recipes are available in Roche Bros. stores.
Four times a year, Roche Bros. fishmongers gather in the Foley test kitchen for training and tasting sessions. According to Laura, Foley Fish typically tries to present items that will help promote locally caught species, seasonal species and items that are demonstrably better than their competition can offer. Recent menu items included a fresh Jonah crab sampler; soaked vs. all-natural sea scallops; cod vs. haddock vs. hake vs. Pollock (so they see how similar the flavors are); wild, farmed and steelhead trout; and swordfish (in-season local fish).
Roche Bros. Seafood Manager Arthur Ackles says, “These quarterly training and tasting sessions are important for a couple of reasons. First of all, Foley does a great job handling the fish and it really makes a difference in the product we get from them. They select the best fish and take excellent care when processing it. They use special ice that doesn’t damage the fish and pack the fish in tins, something no other fish processor does. Sometimes we get fish the same morning it was caught. It’s important for our fishmongers to know how the fish was handled and to communicate that to our customers. Also, knowledgeable sales people are the best sales people. Our fishmongers can speak intelligently to our customers about how to best prepare and cook different types of fish because they have been educated.”
Laura Foley ramsden serves on the new England Fishery Management Council, which is charged with conserving and managing fishery resources from three to 200 miles off the Maine, new Hampshire, Massachusetts, rhode Island and Connecticut coastlines. People like to buy local fish. But, Laura says, “Fishery management is complex. Just labeling the product red, yellow or green oversimplifies it and doesn’t give the consumer enough information to make a well-considered choice. We want to encourage customers to select locally-caught fish with good conscience knowing that the seafood has been harvested sustainably and handled naturally at the Foley plant to maintain its ‘just caught’ flavor.”