Friday, July 27, 2012

Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (2007)

"The Pinot Noir grape is one tempermental fruit." During our honeymoon, we heard that a lot from the different wineries that we visited.  Despite its temperamental nature, many of the wineries and vineyards in Oregon's Willamette Valley have been able to make some great wines with that grape.  One of those vineyards is Sokol Blosser.  Both Clare and I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the vineyard and its wine-making process during our honeymoon.  We also bought a few bottles to take home with us and, over time, we drank them.  I never thought I would see Sokol Blosser wines again, until we came across a bottle of the 2007 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir.  

It is remarkable how a bottle of wine can bring back some great memories.  When we opened this bottle, I could remember that tour.  Walking through the vineyards, visiting the environmentally friendly cellar, and, of course, trying some of Sokol Blosser's wines. 

The 2007 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir pours a dark red color, with some interesting cherry tones.  Once poured, the wine's aroma sparked thoughts of cherries.  Ripe, soft dark cherries.  There may have been some raspberry as well, but the cherries were the principal aromatic element of this wine. 

As for the taste, the winemaker suggests that the 2007 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir should feature dark cherries, raspberries and mocha.  I could definitely sense the dark cherrries, which seemed to take center stage in the flavor profile.  However, they had an interesting supporting cast.  As the wine opened up, there were flavors such as tomatoes, melding together with spice tones to spark images of a pizza in one's mind.  (Perhaps, I was just hungry for a pizza when I drank this wine.) This is a rather unusual flavor profile for a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir wine, and, at least for me, that profile made the wine very interesting and enjoyable to drink.  

The winemaker suggests that this wine could be best paired with salmon, pork and lamb dishes.  I think this wine could work especially well with grilled fish or meat dishes,  although braised dishes would also work well with this wine . Of course, I think this wine would also pair well with a simple pizza, with some red sauce, mozzarella cheese, mushrooms, and sausage. 

Sokol Blosser wines are relatively easier to find than many other Willamette vineyards and wineries.  If you can find this wine, it will probably cost about $50.00 a bottle. 


Monday, July 23, 2012

Raging Pig Pulled Pork

As my beautiful wife can tell you, I love pulled pork.  It is probably my favorite kind of barbecue.  Every year, I try to smoke a couple of pork shoulders, using different rubs, mops and sauces.  As much as I love to barbecue, it takes a lot of time.  By July, I would have been able to smoke at least two pork shoulders.  Unfortunately, this year, I have been very busy and have not been able to dedicate a day to barbecue ... until just recently. 

I decided that I had to make the time to smoke a small pork shoulder.  I chose a pork shoulder that weighed about four and one-half pounds.   The question first turned to the rub.  I have a lot of ground hatch chile peppers, which I decided to use as the base.  I found a recipe for a Southwestern Style Chile Rub in Cheryl and Bill Jamison's classic barbecue book, Smoke & Spice.  Their recipe called for 1/2 cup of New Mexican chiles and 1/2 cup of ancho chile pepper.  Given that I would be smoking the pork, I did not think that I needed the ancho chile.  After all, ancho chiles do not have a lot of heat, their primary use is to provide some smoke flavor.  I also dialed back the New Mexican chiles to 1/3 of a cup of medium hatch chiles, but I added a healthy tablespoon of hot and an another, equally healthy tablespoon of extra hot chiles.  I also added some rub basics -- salt, onion powder, and garlic powder -- along with a tablespoon of dried oregano.  I decided to call this my "Raging Pig" Rub, for reasons that will become clearer as you read this post. 

I then turned my attention to the mop sauce.  Once again, I consulted Smoke & Spice, which had a recipe at page 46.  I decided to use their beer mop sauce.  The Jamisons did not identify any particular beer to use for the mop, it called only for twelve ounces of beer.  I opened the refrigerator and pulled a bottle of the only beer that we had at the time ... Flying Dog's Raging Bitch Belgian Style Pale Ale.  That beer transformed an ordinary mop sauce into a Raging Bitch Beer Mop Sauce.  

The beer also inspired the name for the pulled pork ... Raging Pig Pulled Pork. I would soon discover, however, that there was more to the "rage" than the beer.  While I was pulling the pork,  I sampled a couple of bites from different parts of the shoulder.  Each bite was accompanied with a spicy kick, which sometimes resembled an afterburn, lingering long after the taste.  In the end, the two parts to this barbecue experience -- the Hatch Chile Rub and the Raging Bitch Beer Mop Sauce -- gives rise to Raging Pig Pulled Pork.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves Many

Ingredients (for the Hatch Chile Rub):
1/3 cup of hatch chiles, medium
1 tablespoon of hatch chiles, hot
1 tablespoon of hatch chiles, extra hot
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of onion powder
1 tablespoon of oregano (preferably Mexican)
3 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon of kosher salt or sea salt

Ingredients (for Smoking Pork):
1 pork shoulder (preferably boston butt), around 4-5 pounds
Apple wood chunks for smoking.

Ingredients (for the Raging Bitch Beer Mop Sauce):
12 ounces of beer
1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup of vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped

1.  Marinate the pork.  Combine all of the rub ingredients.  Rub the mix over all of the pork, making sure that the entire shoulder is covered, including any crevasses in the meat.  Marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

2.  Smoke the pork.  Place the apple wood in a bucket for at least one to two hours before you start the smoking.  Start a fire in a smoker (using a chimney) and bring the temperature to 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Add one or two pieces of apple wood to the charcoal.  Add the pork.  Smoke the pork for about 1 and 1/2 hours per pound of pork.

3Mop the pork.  Prepare the mop sauce.  After about four hours,  remove the lid of the smoker and mop the pork a couple of time.  Return the lid.  Repeat this process about every half hour until the pork is done.  

4.  Finish the dish.  When the pork nears the appropriate temperature (190 degrees Fahrenheit), pull the pork out of the smoker, wrap with foil and let sit for about fifteen minutes.  Remove the pork from the foil and pull, shred or chop the pork. 

So far, I made a simple pulled pork sandwich ... slice of tomato, slice of red onion, topped with pulled pork.  I did not use a sauce because I wanted to taste the pork itself.  It was a very delicious sandwich. 


This recipe calls for a good beer to be paired with the barbecue.  Given the spiciness of the rub, I would go for something a little lighter and crisper.  A pilsner or a pale ale would work well with this barbecue.  A couple of options include:

Schlafly Beer -- Pale Ale
Pale Ale
St. Louis, MO, USA
Flavors with hops and malts, well-balanced

Abita -- Save Our Shores
New Orleans, LA, USA
Flavors have a hint of hoppiness


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tilapia "Affogato"

In Tuscany, there is a dish called Trote Affogato or "Drowned Trout."  The recipe calls for the sauteing of fresh trout with an herb mix and, as the fish cooks, white wine is carefully drizzled over the fish.  As the wine evaporates, more is drizzled over the fish.  Once the fish is cooked, you can plate the fish and use the juices in the dish as a sauce.

I have made the original Trote Affogato for my wife, my beatutiful Angel.  However, over the years, I have tried different versions of this dish.  I have used different fish, different wine, and even different aromatics. They have not always been successful.  

This is my most recent attempt to make this dish.  Once again, I decided to use different ingredients that the Trote Affogato recipe.  Different fish, aromatics and herbs. The one thing that this recipe shares in common with Trote Affogato is the use of the white wine, drizzling it slowly and carefully so that the fish is basically poached in the wine.  In so doing, I sought to achieve the true meaning of "Trote Affogato" ..."poached trout."

Recipe adapted from Regional Italian Cuisine at p.144
Serves 2

2 fillets of fish (such as trout or tilapia)
1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, chopped
1 bunch of scallions, white part thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
1/2 cup of white wine 
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Ground pepper

1.  Saute the scallions and herbs.  Heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the scallions and saute for two minutes.  Add the garlic, rosemary and thyme.  Saute for a couple minutes more.  

2.  Saute the fish.  Add the fish fillets.  Drizzle a few tablespoons of wine over the fish.  Saute the fish until the wine evaporates before you add more.  Repeat by drizzling a few more tablespoons of wine over the fish and allow it to cook until evaporated.  Continue this process until the fish is cooked, which will depend upon the fish and the thickness of the fillet. 


Given the use of white wine in this recipe, the obvious pairing for this dish is white wine.  I used a Terre di Chieti Bianco from Perlage.  This wine is made primarily from the Trebbiano grape, which is grown throughout Italy.  There are also Trebbiano wines, such as Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, which will also work well with this dish. 


Wednesday, July 18, 2012


The acronym "TBA" can stand for a lot of things ... like "To Be Announced" or "Tertiary Butyl Alcohol."    In the case of the craft beer movement, "TBA" stands for "Texas Brown Ale."  This "style" of beer has a rather interesting lore.  The story oddly enough begins in California.  As the story goes, Californian home brewers got bored with the English Brown Ale.  They decided that they would give their own spin to the weary brown ale.  The brewers increased the use of crystal and chocolate malts, and, as Californian brewers often do, they added a lot of hops.  The result was a hoppy brown ale that clearly set itself from the malt-driven versions of the English Brown Ale.

The owner of the Houston, Texas-based Defalco Home Wine and Beer Supplies, Scott Birdwell, visited California and tried the Californian version of the brown ale.  Given the increased use of hops and the darker color, the beer could not qualify as an English Brown Ale at beer competitions.  Birdwell decided that a new category should be created and called "California Dark."  The American Homebrewers Association accepted the new category, but called it the "Texas Brown Ale."  Eventually, the style became known as the American Brown Ale. 

This particular Texas Brown Ale is the result of a collaboration between three talented brewers: the head brewers from Stone Brewing Company, Bear Republic Brewery and Fat Head's Brewery & Saloon.  This TBA is no ordinary brown ale; instead, it was inspired by the time during which it was brewed ... right before Christmas.  As the label states, "[n]othing says Christmas like hanging out with good friends and brewing something special.  Thanks to Matt Cole from Fat Head's and Richard (Ricardo) Norgrove from Bear Republic for braving the pre-holiday travel to come to Stone the week before the Christmas Holiday and brew this 'sort of' old-school American (or Texas) brown ale."   

The "sort-of" nature of this Texas Brown Ale is also explained by the label.  "The recipe we came up with a host of specialty malts, molasses, brown sugar, Columbus, Bravo, Brewers' Gold and for the first time ever at Stone, Cascade hops." The label concludes, "[w]e're hoping our brew brings back fond memories of some of the earliest classic craft beers.  Enjoy your trip down memory lane." 

For me, it was Christmas in summer.  I poured the beer into a Fat Head's mug.  While the beer poured a brown sugar color, I was surprised by the thick foam from the carbonation.  As one would expect from a beer produced by Stone, Fat Heads and Bear Republic, this beer is very bold.  The use of four different hops allows the piney and citrusy flavors to assert themselves strongly in both the aroma and the flavor.  What is more remarkable about the beer is not the hops, but the sweetness from the malts, molasses and brown sugar round out the taste of this beer in a great way. 

The confluence of hops, malt and sweetness provide a little more challenge when it comes to pairing this beer.  One suggestion is barbecue, with the sweetness being a good complement to the spice or smoke in the rubs.  Another suggestion is earthy or nutty cheeses.  Both could probably work, although I have to admit that I just enjoyed the beer by itself.

Obviously, the beer was (and may still be available) in California, where Stone and Bear Republic are located, or in Ohio, where Fat Head's is located.  This bottle was a gift, so I do not know how much it cost.  Still, if you see a bottle, it is worth it.


For more about the history of the Texas Brown Ale, check out Bay Area Craft Beer and Texas Beer Freedom.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Eritrea

After having eaten a wonderful Bhutanese dinner of Kangchu Maroo, or Pig Trotter Curry, my thoughts turned to my next culinary challenge.  As I have previously noted, my challenges are almost always determined by using a random country generator websites on the Internet.  I consult the website and it provides a country like ... Eritrea.  I then do a lot of research.  My focus is three-fold: (1) to learn about the country, (2) its culture and (3) its cuisine.  While doing this research, I develop a theme for the blog post and the post itself begins to take shape.  I read websites like Wikipedia, the State Department, and/or other news sites, like BBC News.  I turn to more culture and/or culinary focused websites.  With respect to a country's cuisine, I try to learn about the ingredients and cooking processes that they use to make each dish.  While I read a lot of websites, I cannot incorporate it all into a blog post.  If I did, I would be writing a book.  So, a lot of editing has to take place.  When it is done, it looks like the following:

The history of Eritrea dates back to at least 1890.  At that time, Italian forces arrived on the Red Sea shores of Ethiopia, looking to establish colonies for Italy.  At the time, Ethiopia was an independent country; however, that did not stop Italy.  It created a colony that not only stripped Ethiopia of its access to the Red Sea, they also split a major ethnic group, the Tigray.  The colony was what would become Eritrea.  Over the months and years that followed, Italy's colonization reinforced the split between the Tigray Ethiopians and the Tigray Eritreans.  This split lead to the establishment of the Eritrean identity.  In 1935, the Italians invaded Ethiopia, but lost the war in 1941.  After the conclusion of World War II, in 1952, the United Nations created a federated Ethiopia, which included a separate government for Eritrea.  The Eritrean government was dissolved in 1962, when Ethiopia's Emperor, Haile Sellasie, annexed the region into Ethiopia.  The annexation sparked a thirty-year civil war.  That civil war ultimately led to the emergence of Eritrea as a country.

Despite this violent history, Eritrea shares a lot in common with Ethiopia when it comes to cuisine and food. The cuisines of both countries feature stews, with chicken, lamb and vegetables.  The stews are served with injera, a yeast-risen flatbread that has a spongy texture and a slightly sour taste.  There are differences.  Some are superficial, such as the names used for the dishes.  Ethiopians use the Amharic names, such as Doro Wat; Eritreans use the Tigrinya name, like Tsebhi Dorho.  Others are more substantial.  Eritreans then to use less seasoned butter and, which makes their dishes lighter than the Ethiopian counterparts.  Eritrean cuisine also includes influences from other cuisines.  The use of tomatoes in Eritrean cooking reflects the influence of Italy, while the use of cumin and curry powders highlights the influence of the Middle East.  


The first dish is D'Nish Zigni or Fiery Potato Stew.  This dish reflects both the influence of Italy and Ethiopia.  The Italian influence is reflected in the use of tomato paste to thicken the stew.  The Ethiopian influence is reflected in the use of Berbere spice mix to increase the heat of the dish.  The Berbere spice mix used in this dish is an Eritrean Berbere, as opposed to an Ethiopian Berbere.  D'Nish Zigni is served with injera.

Recipe adapted from
Serves 4

2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 teaspoons of Berbere (recipe below)
6 medium potatoes, cubed
1 small tin of tomato paste
1 tablespoon of salt
4 cups of chicken stock

1.  Saute the onions.  Heat the vegetable oil over medium high heat.  Add the onions and saute for five minutes.

2.  Saute the potatoes.  Add the Berbere spice and potatoes and saute for five more minutes.  Add chicken stock and simmer for ten more minutes.  Add the tomato paste and stir to incorporate it.  Season and simmer for ten more minutes.  
Add the chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes before adding the tomato paste, season to taste and simmer for a further 10 minutes.

Read more at Celtnet:
Copyright © celtnet


Although I made D'Nish Zigni, it is not the dish that will qualify for the challenge. Instead, the culinary challenge for me is to make Tsebhi Sega.  This is a minced meat dish that is made with either ground beef or lamb.  Whenever I have the choice, I prefer lamb over beef.  This challenge had multiple components, requiring me to cook not only the meat, but also make an Eritrean Berbere spice mix as well as an herb butter known as Tegelese Tesmi.  I have included recipes for both the Berbere and Tegelese Tesmi with the recipe for Tsebhi Sega.  And, as with the D'Nish Zigni, the Tsebhi Sega is served with injera.

Adapted from
Serves 4

2 medium sized onions, chopped
2 tablespoons of sunflower or other vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of Eritrean Berbere
1 tablespoon of Tegelese Tesmi
1 teaspoon of chopped ginger
1 teaspoon of chopped garlic
6 large tomatoes, skinned and sliced
2 pounds of shredded or ground lamb or beef
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

1.  Saute the onions.  Heat the oil in a frying pan and saute the onions until they are light golden. 

2.  Add the other components.  Add the Berbere and Tegelese Tesmi, along with some water if necessary.  Continue to simmer on low for ten minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger, as will as the sliced tomatoes.  Season with salt and pepper after another five minutes.  Continue to simmer for about fifteen minutes. 

3.  Cook the meat.  Add the ground lamb or beef and continue to cook until the meat is done.  If the mixture becomes too dry, add a little water. 

To make the Tsebhi Sega, one must make an Eritrean version of Berbere.  And, just like Ethiopian Berbere, there are many different recipes, each with different spices and different proportions.  Ultimately, I had to settle on one recipe, but I still had to make some adjustments.  Most notably, the version I decided to use called for 20 crumbled dried peppers.  The problem is which dried red peppers to use.  I noted that some recipes call for a mix of piri-piri chiles and cayenne peppers.  Still 20 peppers is a lot.  After a lot of thought, I decided to use the proportions of ground red peppers (4 to 6 teaspoons) called for in the Ethiopian version.   

Adapted from Recipes Wiki
Serves 4

4 to 6 teaspoons of dried red peppers or chilies (or 20 dried red peppers)
3 tablespoons of sweet or hot paprika
2 teaspoons of dried cumin seeds
1 teaspoon of cardamom
1/2 teaspoon of allspice
1 teaspoon of fenugreek seed
1 teaspoon of coriander seed
8 cloves
1 teaspoon of black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon of dried ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon of salt

Put all of the ingredients up to the salt in a frying pan (except for any powders).  Heat for two minutes, stirring constantly.  Add to a spice grinder.  Add the salt and any powders and grind everything.

Finally, to make Tsebhi Sega, it is also necessary to make Tegelese Tesmi or herb butter.  This is a relatively new process for me, because I have not had to clarify butter or make ghee in the past.  Of all of the components for this main dish, I actually had the hardest time when I made the Tegelese Tesmi.

Adapted from Yummly

1 cup of unsalted butter
3 1/3 ounces of water
2 small onions, shredded
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons of ginger, shredded

1.  Melt the butter.  Put the butter and water in a frying pan and heat them until the butter has melted.

2.  Simmer with the other ingredients.  Add the other ingredients and simmer the mixture on a low fire for thirty minutes, until the mixture stops skimming and the butter is clear.  Do NOT stir the mixture.

3.  Finish the butter.  Sieve the butter and allow to cool down in a well closed jam jar. 

*     *     *

Overall, I think this challenge is a success. I am completely stuffed, in part due to the D'Nish Zigni and Tsebhi Sega, and in part due to the injera.  One of these days I will make my own injera, rather than rely upon the bread I buy from a local Ethiopian store.  But, that would be an entirely different challenge.  Until that time ...


For more about the history and cuisine of Eritrea, check out Konrad Licht and the Washington City Paper.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bergström Winery's Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir (2007)

This review presents a rare opportunity for me ... the chance to review two different vintages of the same wine.  The only tandem of reviews that I have done is the Privé Le Nord 2006 and Privé Le Nord 2008.  This review will complete a second tandem, because, a few months back, I reviewed the Cumberland Reserve 2009 from Bergström Winery.  Recently, Clare and I opened the Cumberland Reserve 2007 from Bergström.  And, it was just as good as the 2009. 

The label on the bottle says it all about the Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir: "The 2007 Cumberland Reserve is a proprietary blend of Pinot Noir, crafted to showcase the best of Oregon's diverse appellations."  This means that the winemaker procures the grapes from different parts of the Willamette Valley and other appellations in Oregon.  The label adds, "through blending of our best barrels from some of Oregon's finest vineyards, we are able to create a Pinot Noir of great style and complexity."

The 2007 vintage of Bergström Winery's Cumberland Reserve pours a crimson, almost maroon shade of red.  For a five year old wine, the Pinot Noir shows its age well, with a good "water line" around the edges of the wine.  The aroma of the Cumberland Reserve is full of red ripe fruit.   Thoughts of cherries and even a few raspberries fill the nose.  There is also a little pepper or spice in the aroma.  As for the taste of the wine, there are notes of ripe cherries.  The wine has a medium body, with a dry finish.  on the edges.  

This wine was a little more mature and refined than the 2009 vintage, which seems sort of obvious given it is an older wine.  The 2009 vintage had black cherries and dark raspberries, with even a little oak or vanilla.  Those flavors were not as present in the 2007 vintage, probably having been mellowed due to the passing of time.  Still, the 2007 vintage was a very good vintage, perhaps showing that the 2009 would have been like in a couple of years.  

This wine is rather difficult to find.  I have located bottles at Binny's in the Chicagoland area, as well as State Line Liquors in Elkton, Maryland. It sells for about $45.00 a bottle.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rockfish Kabobs in Classic Greek Marinade

By now, followers of this blog may recognize that I cook a lot with rockfish.  Also known as striped bass, rockfish are the state fish of Maryland.  The species is also somewhat of a success story when it comes to sustainability.  It was not looking good for the Chesapeake rockfish, which -- like oysters and blue crabs -- was overfished.  The populations in the bay reached historic lows. It got so bad that the State of Maryland actually banned the fishing of rockfish.  The ban did not last long, because the populations of rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay began to rebound.  And, over the past fifteen years, the population of rockfish have gone from historic lows to record highs.

While the sustainability of the rockfish appeals to me, I also find that it is a great fish cook with.  Rockfish fillets are usually thick enough to prepare with any cooking process ... whether it is grilling, frying or broiling.  In addition, the fillets are also substantial enough to handle just about any rub or marinade.  A found one such interesting marinade in Dishing Up Maryland.  It comes from the Black Olive Restaurant in Baltimore Maryland.  The Black Olive is a highly rated restaurant in Fell's Point that is owned and operated by the Spiliadis family.  While I have not dined at the Black Olive, it is on my list of places to try.  As for this recipe, it turned out very well and, like the Grilled Confetti Rockfish, it will be on my short list of recipes to make again whenever I have some rockfish in the fridge.

Recipe from Dishing Up Maryland at 128
Serves 2

2 thick rockfish fillets, cut into 1.5 or 2 inch cubes
1 red, yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into 1.5 or 2 inch cubes
2 large red onions, peeled and cut into quarters or eighths
2/3 cup of olive oil
1/3 cup of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1.  Prepare the skewers.  Soak four 10 inch bamboo skewers in water for 1 hour.  Remove them from the water, pat them dry, and assemble the kabobs on the skewers, alternating pieces of the fish, pepper, and onion.  Place the kabobs into a shallow glass baking dish.

2.  Prepare the marinade and marinade the skewers.  Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and pepper in a blender and blend at high speed until the mixture emulsifies.  Pour the mixture over the  kabobs and put them in the refrigerator to marinate for at least ten or fifteen minutes; turn the kabobs over and let them marinate for another ten or fifteen minutes.

3.  Grill the kabobs.  Heat a gas or charcoal grill to high.  Remove the kabobs from the marinade and grill them for about three minutes on one side.  Turn the kabobs and grill them for an additional two minutes, until the rockfish is cooked through.  Serve immediately.


Given this recipe calls for a "classic Greek marinade," I think a classic Greek wine is in order.  A Moschofilero is a white grape varietal that is cultivated in the Peloppenese that produces a bright, citrus flavored wine that goes very well with the rockfish, as well as the grilled onions.  Other white wines, especially lighter wines, could also work well with this dish.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

Voyatzis Wineries -- Kyklos Moschofilero
100% Moschofilero
Peloppenese, Greece
Flavors of grapefruit, melon and honeydew

Hughes Beaulieu -- Picpoul de Pinet (2010) 
100% Picpoul de Pinet
Languedoc, France
Flavors of grapefruit, lemon and lime


Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Lobster Fisherman

One of the most important things I have learned from my culinary adventures over the past couple of years is that there is a story behind everything.    As time goes on, I feel more and more compelled to learn about those stories.  Most recently, my beautiful wife, Clare, and I took a vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine.  As we prepared for our vacation, I did some research about a specific activity for our vacation ... lobster fishing or lobstering.  I came across a website for Penobscot Narrows Lobstering Tours, which offered private tours conducted  by Captain Greg Perkins on his working lobster boat, the MSV Jenny G II.  I thought that a tour of this type would provide us with insight into the story behind the lobsters that grace seafood counters in grocery stores or appear on the menus of many restaurants.  What I learned was that the lobster, Homarus Americanus, is a story about how people, like Captain Perkins, work hard to maintain a treasured while trying to make a living in an ever changing environment.

Homarus Americanus.
In many ways, Maine has defined itself through the American lobster.  It is no accident.  While the lobster has a range from Labrador to North Carolina, the greatest concentration of Homarus Americanus lies in the shallow shoal waters off of the Maine coast.  The abundance of lobsters allowed for the development of a fishing industry.  At first, lobsters were caught and consumed in Maine. With the advent of the canning industry in the mid 1800s, however, enterprising businessmen were able to can the lobster meat and ship it down the east coast, creating demand for Maine lobster across the country.  This demand created a problem. In 1860, canneries were canning the meat from four to five pound lobsters.  By 1880, they were canning the meat of 1/2 pound lobsters.   Take into account two more facts: (1) a one pound lobster is approximately five to seven years old; and (2) lobsters reach reproductive age between six and eight years.  This spelled trouble for the future of the lobster fishing industry.

The lobster trap.
The threat to the lobsters gave rise to an array of stringent, regulatory requirements in the State of Maine. Prospective lobstermen (and lobsterwomen) are required to apprentice aboard a vessel for two years.  During that time, they are trained in the safe and sustainable methods for fishing lobsters.  Those methods focus primarily around the lobster trap.  One can only catch lobsters in the Maine waters using a trap; no diving or dredging is permitted. The lobster trap itself is subject to several requirements: there is a maximum size for traps, there must be escape vents (so that small lobsters can get out of the trap); and, lobster traps must have biodegradable escape panels for larger lobsters in cases where the trap is lost.

Looking for the buoys and the traps.
As Captain Perkins ferried Clare and I to the fishing grounds, he explained the most important requirements ... those that are vital to the future of the lobster fishing industry.  First, any egg-bearing female lobster must be returned to the water.  Second, lobstermen are required to "notch" the tails of the egg-bearing lobsters.  This notch warns subsequent lobstermen of the fact that the female lobster is a "known breeder."  A lobster with a notch in its fin must be returned to the water, even if it is not carrying any eggs.  Third, in order to be a "keeper," the lobster must be a minimum size.  The size is measured using a gauge, and the measurement is taken from the extreme rear of the lobster's eye socket to the end of the carapace.  The minimum length is three and one quarter inches. Fourth and finally, there is a maximum size for "keepers."  The maximum length is five inches.  Thus, a "keeper" lobster in the State of Maine is one that measures 3 1/4 inches to 5 inches.

All of these requirements have worked, producing a sustainable population of lobsters in Maine waters that, in turn, results in larger and larger catches over the course of a year.  This success is a double edged sword, especially for fishermen like Captain Perkins.  The landing of more lobsters means more supply, which forces the price for lobsters downward.

Checking for a keeper.
Declining prices are not the only problem faced by fishermen like Captain Perkins.  There are the lobsters themselves.  Captain Perkins fishes for lobsters from March through December.  The lobsters are not always willing to be caught during that time.  During the coldest months, from December through March, the lobsters migrate further out to sea.  They return in March or April, when they begin to molt or shed their shells.   The molting serves an important purpose ... it allows the lobster to grow.  They lose their hard shell, settling for a soft one that eventually hardens again.  While they are in their soft shell form, lobsters are very vulnerable to predators, such as fish and seals.  So, the lobsters hide amongst the rocks, not venturing out even to eat.  Once their shells have hardened, the lobsters emerge, hungry for food.  This is when the height of the lobster fishing season takes place.  And it runs only from late July through early September.  So, for fishermen like Captain Perkins, they depend primarily upon their catch during that limited period of time.

Competition over the scraps.
And there is a lot of competition. Individual lobstermen, like Captain Perkins, are becoming more and more the exception rather than the rule.  Large corporations now dominate the fishing industry; and, unlike individual fishermen, who must go out for most of the year, those companies wait for the prime fishing season.  When the companies head out on the water, the buoys of the individual lobstermen are like a road map to the fishing grounds.  Thus, individual lobstermen have to supplement their income any way they can, whether it is through bycatch -- such as Maine rock crabs (also known as sand crabs) -- or by providing private lobstering tours to grateful customers such as Clare or myself.

What made this trip even more special, at least for me, was the ability to "step" into the shoes of a lobsterman.  The process is rather straightforward.  The captain pilots the boat to where he or she laid the traps.  Buoys float at the surface, color-coded to identify the particular lobsterman's traps.  The lobsterman uses a gaff to snatch the line, which is fed into a hydraulic trap hauler.  The line is reeled in and the trap is brought aboard.  Given the time of year, most of the catch consisted Maine rock crabs, with a few lobsters and sea stars, along with a couple of sculpin.  The trap is emptied, with keeper lobsters getting bands put on their claws to prevent them from grabbing each other.  The lobsterman can also keep rock crabs, provided they are a good size.  The rest is returned to the water.  The trap is re-set with a new bag of bait, which is usually herring.  Once it is ready, the trap is closed and returned to the watery bottom.

After watching Captain Perkins reel in a few traps, I donned the rubber apron and rubber gloves. 

Stepping into the shoes of a lobsterman.
I left the gaffing and reeling in the traps to Captain Perkins.  However, once the traps were board, I went to work pulling the lobsters, crabs and fish.  The lobsters were rather sedate, perhaps full from eating herring At first, I was a little reticent, because I did not know what to do.  I left the pulling of the traps from the bottom to the Captain.  Once the traps were aboard the vessel, I worked with Captain Perkins to pull the lobsters, crabs and other bycatch from the traps.  The lobsters were relatively sedate.  Perhaps they were full from eating the herring in the bait bags; or, they were resigned to the fact that they were caught.   

Maine rock crabs.
By contrast,  we caught quite a few Maine rock crabs.  These crabs seemed a little foreign to me.  Living around the Chesapeake Bay, I am used to seeing blue crabs, with their sharp, pointy shells.  The rock crabs resemble a smaller version of dungeness crabs. They had a reddish hue that is reminiscent of cooked crabs.  However, they were very much alive.  And rather feisty.  As I reached in to the traps to pull out the crabs out, they grabbed onto the cages for dear life.  A novice, I tried to get them to release their grips, only to save the claws.  Having worked in a crab house, I was always told that crabs had to be served with two claws.  However, these stone crabs are not served whole; instead, they are sold to processors who pick them of their meat.

In the end, we caught only about six lobsters, which was not unexpected given the time of year.  (Ironically, that is about the same number of lobsters that I had eaten during our vacation in Bar Harbor.)  As we returned to port, I had a new appreciation or understanding of the work that goes into the lobsters that ended up on my plate.  It is hard work that, for lobstermen like Captain Perkins, is also their livelihood.   Everyone should take the time to think about those who work to provide the food that we eat.  Until next time ...


P.S.: If you ever find yourself in Maine, for a vacation or otherwise, I strongly recommend that you call Captain Greg Perkins at Penobscot Narrows Lobstering Tours and arrange for a private lobsterfishing tour.