First, there are two kinds of salmon, Pacific and Atlantic. All commercially sold wild salmon is Pacific, because it comes from ocean waters from Alaska to California. King or Chinook salmon is the best known of five species of Pacific salmon. It has the richest flavor because it has the highest oil content. The color is a deep orange, though there are albino kings, which have become more available in recent years, mostly as novelties. Kings are typically named for rivers to which they return to spawn, such as Copper River and Yukon River salmon.
Even among king salmon, differences in taste can be quite dramatic. For example, I had an absolutely delicious, meaty salmon from Cooks Inlet in Alaska (purchased from Farm 2 Market, 800-663-4326 farm-2-market.com) that just blew away a Yakutat Alaskan salmon (from ChefShop.com) that was so tame, it looked and tasted as if farm-raised.
Sockeye salmon, also known as red salmon because of its color, has the second highest oil content of all wild salmon and the heartiest flavor. Sockeyes, which peak in supply in July, are a particular favorite for smoking, which doesn’t overpower their robust quality.
Coho or silver salmon have about sixty percent of the fat content of king salmon and thus are not as flavorful. Chum salmon look similar to silver salmon, but they have less fat. Still, they can make good eating. In fact, one of the fisherman I met on my trip to the Alaska Peninsula to view salmon fishing said he prefers fresh chum over king and sockeye. Chum are often featured as supermarket specials in summer. Ditto for pink salmon, the most abundant salmon, though most pinks are canned.
On that trip in mid June, I was aboard the Alaska Dawn, operated by John Rotter with the help of his wife and son. Rotter, a gravelly voiced ex-Navy sub sonar operator with a scraggily beard, has seen a lot of changes in the 25 years he has been a fisherman. For one thing, he’s surrounded by a plethora of high tech equipment, including a GPS, radar and sonar, even a gizmo that can adjust nets electronically.
Technically, the Alaska Dawn isn’t a fishing boat, at least not today. It’s a tender boat. Tenders go from fishing boat to fishing boat in a designated area and upload their catch so the individual fishing boats don’t have to spend time going ashore and coming back to fish again. Tenders usually make two trips ashore each day to unload the fish they’ve collected. In between trips, the fish are kept in a temperature-controlled hold that is monitored regularly.
“In the past five years there has been much more emphasis on freshness,” Rotter says. “It used to be that fish would be two days old when they were brought in. Now it’s the same day or next day.”
A skiff or small fishing boat pulls alongside the Alaska Dawn with its catch. The sockeye are brought on board, but the skiff has a large bycatch of cod that has to be thrown back because cod isn’t in season. There are also five beautiful king salmon that can’t be brought ashore because there aren’t enough of them for the processing plant to prepare for shipment.
So what happens to these expensive fish, which Michael Cimarusti, chef and co-owner of Providence restaurant in Los Angeles (and a member of our group), says would cost him $1000 if he had to pay for them? The fisherman take them home and eat them right away or freeze them until later in the year when fresh salmon aren’t available.
At a community gathering later that day (where I was presented with a cake in the shape of a fish for my birthday), Cimarusti grilled a few of those kings. They were fabulous.
Pinot Noir is the wine choice of many salmon aficionados. Awhile back, I tried five. Oregon just edged out Sonoma. Both had good fruit and depth, but the Oregon Pinot had better acidity enabling it to cut through the fish’s fattiness better. A bottling from New Zealand’s Marlborough region came in third. It had good balance but just not enough oomph to keep up with wild salmon. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer argues that Oregon Pinot Gris is an even better choice. Pinot Gris, yes, but from Alsace, not Oregon. The Alsatian Pinot Gris had much more richness and firmer acidity, both of which helped it to stand up nicely to the fish.
It seems that with salmon and wine, we all have quite a few choices.