I’ve just found the world’s fittest athletes...Commercial prawn fishermen.
I don’t know what I expected on the commercial fishing boat Nordic Rand that morning, but a nonstop whirlwind of frenzied activity wasn’t it. Not many outsiders get to follow their food from the bottom of the ocean to their plate. When the invite came, I said, “Absolutely, yes.”
So at (urg-g-g-h) 5am one May morning, I showed up at the dock on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and discovered, um, you need to be an athlete just to get aboard. It was several feet down to the top of the railing. One of the guys grabbed a handle, swung out and landed, deftly, in the squeeze of empty space between bins and assorted equipment. For me, the boat pushed off, came around and picked me up at the public dock where all I had to do was swing my leg over the side. Whew.
Breakfast was a huge pan of scrambled eggs strewn with lots of cheese and whatnot along with an entire cookie sheet of bacon. For four guys. I soon learned why they chowed down so heartily.
The Nordic Rand runs half a dozen “long lines” -- sturdy half-mile long ropes, each holding 50 four-foot, disk shaped traps. All these are let out, left for a day, then reeled in and emptied. They do this every day, nonstop, sun up ‘til sundown, for the duration of the season, which this year ran early May through early June.
We started with a quick lesson on prawns vs. shrimp. They are NOT the same thing, though for the average person, it’s a bit of splitting hairs (or really, claws). Prawns have claws on three of their five pairs of legs, shrimp have claws on two of their five pairs of legs. Prawns are longer and their tails are noticeably larger. As far as eating them goes, they taste and cook the same.
We motored out for about an hour, found the end of the trap line, loaded it onto the spooler and started reeling in the traps. And the fun began: It’s a whirlwind of flying spray and prawns. While Capt. James Simpson on the back deck reloaded the traps with bait, a mash of fish parts and fish food that went into hanging sleeves. Bryar Lang stood at the rail, clipping the coffee table size traps onto the line.
When that line was loaded and spooled out, it was time to pull another line up. Traps were hauled aboard, emptied into a tray, then passed on to Simpson on the back deck who stacked the traps. By the end, the traps were stacked eight to ten high, waiting to be reloaded and redropped into the ocean. Each trap, loaded with its catch, probably weighed 50 pounds, by the way.
As for the tray, it was covered mostly not in prawns but shells holding hundreds of hermit crabs and assorted sea life. So Lang and his buddies Simon Winterburn and Kyle Plensky were now shoveling shells back into the ocean, along with the occasional fish and, at one point, a basket star bigger than a Frisbee.
Okay, then the rest of the work started. While Simpson on the back deck was reloading bait, the guy at the tray tossed prawns into separate bins by size. Those went into baskets, then into a vat of fresh water with a glazing dip so they would keep their pink color. And then they went into boxes, which were weighed and dropped into a huge freezer below decks which, amazingly, can go down to 55 below zero and flash freezes the catch. Each trap can be emptied once a day and each day they can bring in anywhere from 500 to 1,000 lbs of prawns.
As for the season, Simpson explained that an inspector comes periodically on board to sample the prawns. “If you’re catching only young, small ones, it’s time to close the season. Nobody wants to catch the small ones. There’s no money in it and it’s not good for the stock.”
And the rest of the year? Tuna and halibut in summer, sablefish in winter, Simpson said.
Now it was time to eat.
At my friend Laurie’s house, we had cold prawns and homemade cocktail sauce (ketchup, Worcestershire, horseradish, a splash of lemon juice, a splash of tabasco).
And then to Little Jumbo, a cozy restaurant near Victoria’s waterfront. Chef Gabe Fayerman-Hansen whipped up prawn ceviche over an avocado mousse. The prawns were silky soft and you could actually taste the individual ingredients: the mild, grassy bite of cilantro, the tang of ginger, the garlic, even a hint of the basil, and, of course, the vinegar and lime. Yes, my tongue is almost dripping as I type this.
The entree was prawns tempura. The batter was light and crisp and seasoned just enough for character but not so much as to overpower the sweet ocean taste of prawns that had been swimming that very morning.
During prawn season, Chef Gabe runs prawns at Little Jumbo as a special feature. And this year, he was the chef at the FAS (Finest At Sea) headquarters/retail store cooking prawns and handing them out to the public.
The day I left to fly back to Seattle, I stopped in at the FAS fish counter and loaded up on smoked tuna and salmon “candy,” but not before taking a picture of the display, where you could see signs telling you not only what the fish was but how it was processed and what boat brought it in.
For Americans, it is okay to bring smoked fish (and meat) back into the US.
FAS (Finest At Sea) hosts free BBQs at their office/retail shop in Victoria celebrating the various fishing seasons including prawns, salmon, tuna, halibut, sablefish and more. Then once a month, they have a dinner where one of their fishing boat captains comes to talk about commercial fishing. To close the prawn season in June, Capt. James Simpson described what his boat does and brought one of his traps. The four course dinner that month featured prawns and was $90 Cdn. Reservations for future dinners can be made through the FAS website or calling (250)383-7760.
PLENTY MORE TO DO IN VICTORIA
Government Street with its pubs, cafes and shops is always a top draw in Victoria. But there’s lots more:
* Abkhazi Teahouse - It was once the home of exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi and his wife Peggy. After their deaths, The Land Conservancy of British Columbia purchased the property to save it from becoming a townhouse development. Today, you can stroll the compact garden and enjoy high tea. Everything on the menu is made onsite except for the Devonshire cream. The teas are local from Silk Road Teas and all of the baking, including pastries and gluten free bread (available for sale), is made by pastry chef Gerry Galapon.
* A Taste of Victoria Food Tours - Owner Andy Olson takes folks on a two hour stroll of history and tasty nibbles through the heart of Victoria. It begins at the Victoria Public Market and includes stops throughout Chinatown including Fan Tan Alley, then on to Market Square, Government St., the Inner Harbour Causeway and Parliament Buildings.
Our day included French Oven Bakery for hot, out of the oven breads, Roast Meat for meatballs, The Very Good Butchers for tastes of vegan fare that included a “Roast Beast Sandwich” made with bean based “meats” that to a dedicated carnivore was stunningly good. Then on to Chinatown for a peek at the three-foot-wide Fan Tan Alley, La Roux French Patisserie for sweets, Just Matcha for Japanese green tea, Sult Pierogi Bar for, yes, pierogis and winding up with samples at Rogers Chocolates.
But best was some fascinating tidbits of information. Such as the fact that the famed Empress Hotel is sinking an inch each year. Low windows are now a foot below ground because the place was built on a landfill. But even better, when they ripped off all that ivy (yes, the Boston ivy is gone), they found stashes of jewelry that had been stolen from guest rooms by raccoons.
*The Fickle Fig Farm Market - This is about as “farm to table” as it gets. Chef/farmer/owner Mitchell Morse dreamed of opening a bistro right on a farm. So behind his little cafe in the Victoria suburb of North Saanich are raised beds with salad greens, a little pig pen with three fat pigs, pet bunnies (no, they are NOT on the menu) and around the neighborhood, several acres of leased mini farms.
Morse started out baking breads for sale but one thing led to another and now he is doing light lunches featuring whatever is fresh and seasonal. The day we visited, it was homemade chicken veggie soup, homemade pizza and, of course, homemade bread. He also holds classes which, last June, included pizza making, bread making and a pasta class.
*Victoria Butterfly Gardens - My fav thing here (after the meat eating tropical plant) was the huge ant farm near the entrance where you can watch a determined line of ants marching up and down tree limbs, each clutching a huge bit of leaf, destined for its nest. Then beyond the doors in the well heated (80 degree) tropical forest are the butterflies. Owl butterflies munching on banana slices, tailed jay butterflies perched on neon purple leaves and lots more, along with assorted turtles and two flamingos so startling pink, they make your eyes hurt.
Finest At Sea: http://www.finestatsea.com/
Little Jumbo: http://littlejumbo.ca/
Abkhazi Teahouse: http://www.abkhaziteahouse.com/
A Taste of Victoria Food Tours: http://www.atasteofvictoriafoodtours.com/
Fickle Fig Farm: http://www.theficklefig.ca
Victoria Butterfly Gardens: http://www.butterflygardens.com
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