A Day at Sea: The BerkShore Way June 12th, 2014

By Austin Banach

Wes Malzone aboard one of the Massachusetts day boats he buys from

Wes Malzone aboard one of the day boats he buys from

Growing up in a small landlocked community I never really knew about great seafood. There were few to no sources of fresh seafood in the Berkshires during the time I was growing up (1990s-2000s). Besides canned tuna and previously frozen shrimp on our holiday shrimp cocktail plate, all I knew was grocery store salmon and cod. I didn’t like seafood. In fact, when you mentioned it to me I almost always frowned, recollecting the smell of the not-so-fresh and “fishy” protein. After attending culinary school, traveling, and working at various restaurants, I learned about the versatility and culture of seafood and became immensely passionate about finding more local and regional sources for this food and taking the once familiar fear of cooking and eating fish away from others around me. When I first met Wes Malzone and laid my eyes on the freshest, near scentless piece of glistening white fish fillet I have ever seen in the Berkshires, I knew our relationship would grow.

Here in the Berkshires we have a beautiful landscape that encourages and supports local farms that give us exemplary produce, meat, and dairy. More and more we are concerned with where and how our food was grown or raised. Another great advantage we have in the Berkshires (and all of New England for that matter) is that we are so close to the ocean and the vast edible bounties of the sea. Similarly, it is just as important for us to know where the seafood we choose to eat came from and how it was caught. Fishermen in towns around any coast make a living in catching and selling wild fish to markets and restaurants. Just as important as it is to support our local agricultural farmers the same is true for the regional fishermen and their livelihoods. Although most fishermen aren’t considered farmers, they do have similar impacts on our environment and some species by the decisions and practices they abide by.

BS_NewHook_Seal_Web-01Allow me to get to the focal point of this article and introduce you to Wes Malzone (for those who may not already know him) and his small business, BerkShore. Wes grew up in Scituate, Massachusetts, near Boston, and was surrounded by the fishing and lobstering culture most of his youth. After graduating college and spending a decade in corporate sales, Wes yearned to start his own business and incorporate what was dear to him: fish and his hometown, Scituate. Now living in the Berkshires, Wes took a plunge and invested in a refrigerated truck to drive to Boston twice a week to meet lobstermen from Scituate and buy fish from day boats fishing around the New England coast. In 2012, BerkShore Native Seafood was founded. Starting with restaurants, BerkShore soon was receiving rave reviews as being perhaps the freshest seafood option in the Berkshires. Shortly after, Wes and the Berkshire Co-op made a deal to start carrying BerkShore fish and is currently the only retail location in the Berkshires that sells his fish. During the summer Wes occupies a stall at the Great Barrington Farmers’ market as well.

When I assumed the position of seafood buyer at the Berkshire Co-op I, of course, knew of Wes and was thrilled to work with him and get to know him more. Naturally I was honored to tag along for a day with Wes to Boston to pick up a round of seafood to be delivered to restaurants.

In a time of increased awareness of sustainability and knowing where your food comes from, Wes brings his strong knowledge and passion of relationships to the seafood business. “Coddle good relationships,” he told me. “By nurturing these relationships you are investing in a long-term relationship and securing quality and trust from these guys.” When Wes first had the notion of starting BerkShore he spent many months scouting out different fish houses and wholesalers around Boston and establishing these relationships. Wes sources his fish from day boats, meaning boats that stay out on the water and fish for 24 to 36 hours and then return with their catch to sell, rather than larger ships that stay out at sea for weeks on end and cannot tell customers when the fish was brought from the water. Wes does business with people who respect the fish and are supporting fishermen who employ the best practices, regulations, and catch methods. “I wasn’t trying to settle on any wholesaler and make a relationship work if it wasn’t transparent from the beginning,” Wes said. We walked into a very small warehouse on the Boston pier where Wes gets the majority of his fish and the owner set aside everything he was doing to greet Wes, show him the fish, and explain where it was from, when it was out of the water, and what to expect in terms of availability and pricing down the road. The owner turned to me and said sternly, “Be appreciative. You have one heck of a picky fishmonger here. You don’t see that very often.” The four suppliers we visited in Boston that day were hands down the most pristine, organized, and efficient operations I have ever encountered in the way of seafood.

In a world of heavy industrial overfishing and overprocessing of seafood, it is becoming harder and harder to figure out what is a sustainable fish option. It is a fact that about 85 percent of the seafood served at restaurants and grocery stores in the United States is imported from countries like Indonesia, Thailand, China, or Vietnam, where fishing is not as regulated and overfishing is overlooked. Despite the lower prices of these commodity seafood options, one cannot be entirely sure how long that fish has been out of the water, how the fish was caught, what environmental hazards or threats the fishing methods imposed, or even if preservatives or other chemicals were used to prolong the freshness while it travels to its final destination. Seafood is often hauled around huge warehouses and carelessly loaded on and off trucks several times before one sees it in a grocery store display or restaurant. By choosing to support native seafood you are supporting local economy and more heavily regulated fishing practices and environmental preservation. Just as there is a higher price to pay for quality meat or organic produce, the same goes for fish.

What exactly are examples of native seafood, one may ask. Fish that are native year-round to the coastal waters of New England and slightly beyond include lobsters, cod, haddock, pollack, flounder, halibut, scallops, porgy, mackerel, and hake, to name a few. Next to lobsters, white fish is Wes’s “bread and butter’” There are other fish as well, such as albacore tuna, yellowfin tuna, mahimahi, wahoo, bluefish, striped bass and swordfish, which are called migratory fish, meaning that these fish migrate to our waters at different times of the year (mostly spring through late summer) and then head south to warmer waters in the colder months.

Time after time, I get asked about the differences in flavor and what’s the best way to cook a particular fish, and I usually reply, “Not a lot, but once you cook a certain fish a few times you see a few differences in the way in cooks, flakes, or retains juiciness, and then you can decide on a personal preference.” While most of these fish are in the same family and taste fairly similar, there are certain nuances and textural differences. Mahimahi, for example, is a lot like cod but a little denser and less “flaky.” Hake tastes a lot like haddock but is thicker and slightly more delicate.

For the reason that most of these fish are similar in taste and appearance, they are easily adaptable in traditional recipes that call for the more common white fish such as sole, cod, or haddock. Based on freshness or seasonality, one can use any white fish interchangeably for another. The saying “know thy farmer’ can translate perfectly to “know thy fishmonger” in the sense that the fishmonger should not only tell you where and how the fish was caught but when it was caught and perhaps suggest a fresher offering. Fish is one of the simplest and quickest proteins to prepare. Broiled, pan-fried, grilled, or baked, it is a highly versatile protein that makes fish an exciting way to cook.

If you are serious about eating the freshest and most sustainable seafood in the Berkshires, then look no further than the fish we buy from BerkShore. Remembering that the Co-op has only been dealing with BerkShore for about two years, I think that this is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship.