When we read of a sushi-perfect 489 lbs blue fin tuna recently making $3,600 a lb at the auction in Japan – and the sushi master buyer admitting the price was ‘a bit high’ – we know the world has gone mad. $500-700,00 a fish has not been uncommon these past years since the Pacific became polluted with fall out from Fukushima began in 2011.
My Spanish nephew makes a living fishing for tuna and can sell a sushi-quality fish for enough to fund a fishing boat as fast, well equipped and luxurious as his sports car waiting at the marina. He has trained in some of Spain’s best kitchens, knows the fish and has the right numbers on his mobile. I’ll keep his location secret to add to the mystery of this trade.
Shortage coupled with insatiable appetite of the wealthy Japanese for blue fin tuna makes good wages for the few in the supply game. The price multiplies fast from quayside, through the dealers and on to the restaurants. Blue fin belly (the lower section above) called ‘toro’ and is rarely priced on a Japanese menu, so adding to the legend of this most athletic of fish.
Nuclear power station leaks are a fact of life where energy is the big debate. The terrifying 2011 Fukushima leak was caused by the double disaster of an earthquake followed by a tsunami. The inevitable happened with Fukushima’s melt down – cesium, strontium and other radioactive agents leached into the Pacific and polluted the fish. As greater mass as is the ocean, the radioactivity will take many years to disperse safely, resulting in Mediterranean blue fin becoming more prized than ever.
By comparison, lamb reared on the Welsh hills close to where I grew up had restrictions only lifted in 2012, 26 years after Chernobyl exploded. Welsh lamb always was prized by those who know the pleasure of eating young mountain lamb which has spent its short life grazing on heather, sparse grass and little else but mother’s milk. Welsh hill farmers suffered greatly long after the horror of Chernobyl was largely forgotten.
Back to blue fin tuna, the crazy prices quoted above are based on a Japanese market which consumes around 80% of the world’s blue fin catch. Food photographer Anthony Blake famously visited Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market in the 1980s when sushi quality tuna would be piled to the roof morning after morning. When he expressed concern about over-fishing he was greeted with blank faces. Thirty years later, the game is very different.
Yellow fin is a more available fish, so to fall on yellow fin tuna belly in the market was special indeed. The cut rarely makes it outside the Japanese restaurant trade. “It eats like the best fillet steak”, says our man Bob Fish. “Well, that’s what my Billingsgate seller told me at 3am.”
A good sized piece weighing in at just over the pound comes to me for just £5 cash. My large wild sea bass is £7 and that too is a good price for fish this fresh.
Tuna belly is a choice cut because it is inter-leaved with the only fat on the tuna’s body. This is fat rich in Omega-3 – that’s the oil that stops the fish from stiffening up in cold water. Without Omega-3, oily fish like herring and mackerel shoals would fall to the ocean floor on their annual migration from the cold North Sea to the slightly warmer Atlantic. With it, they stay supple and swimming. The ‘Eskimo Diet’ tried to explain this simple concept but the people found it hard to swallow – literally.
There are optimum fat levels and times of year when the fish are celebrated, hence why all along the French Channel coast there are herring festivals through the autumn as the shoals move west from Dunkirk to Dieppe and on to Fécamp and Étrètat through November.
Cans of ‘ventresca‘ sell for 2-3 times and more of high end tuna loin. I hear of some being canned to order from the deep frozen fish caught in the traditional but bloody mattanza in high density seawater corals – and still goes on to make high prices, some from Carloforte selling for €20-25 for a 350g can.
Some tuna from even the best brands gets over-processed and in a can one has no way of knowing until the can is opened only to find we have forked out for fish that both looks and tastes like a bathroom flannel.
We have a large piece of fresh tuna belly, so what’s to do? Raw as sashimi is an exciting option with fish this fresh, but I want to continue experimenting with preserving fresh fish. The loin I preserved was successful, now for the belly.
Make sure the fish is as dry as possible before slipping as a piece into warmed olive oil. I could have flavoured the oil with bay, garlic or lemon, but prefer to keep it plain so as to fully enjoy the fish once cooked and cooled.
The cooking is like with a confit – the fish is gently stewing in the deep oil and changing from red to white. It must not fry. I choose to leave it rare in the middle, so 3-4′ a side is enough. This does mean we must eat the fish within days not weeks.
Remove from the oil onto kitchen paper to dry and allow to go cold. Transfer to a tub that allows the fish to be entirely immersed in fresh olive oil. Leave for 48 hours to mature and take up flavour from the fruity oil. Store in a cool, dark place, but do not refrigerate as that will destroy the fresh flavours.
I feel we’ve equalled if not improved on the best brands I have tasted. A triumph for Blue Collar Gastronomy.