More than anyone else, Lulu Peyraud has guided my thinking about choosing and cooking fish. I first met her in the mid-1970s at her winery, Domaine Tempier, only a few miles inland from the small port city of Bandol on the Mediterranean. I was immediately struck by her love of the pleasures of the table and her deep connection to the earth and sea of southern France. All her food is delicious and appropriate to the moment. But nothing expresses her sensibility better than her approach to fish.
Lulu never knows what she is going to make until she has been to the market. She arrives just as the boats come in. The fishermen dump their catch onto outdoor tables under a canopy of plane trees: Fish jump around, crabs try to crawl back to the sea. If the catch is particularly plentiful and guests are expected for a special occasion, Lulu may decide to make a bouillabaisse, the celebrated Provençal fish and shellfish stew. She will buy tiny rockfish, small lobsters, shore crabs, grouper, mussels, anglerfish and any of a dozen other varieties prized on the Provençal coast. Back at the winery, she places an enormous copper cauldron over a fire of vine cuttings near the garden. The guests gather around and watch as, in well-rehearsed order, she adds potatoes, onion, fish and, finally, shellfish. Then we move to long tables under the trees set with mortars of rouille to stir into the stew. Lulu’s bouillabaisse is a pure expression of the sea and her exact place on the planet.
When I returned to Berkeley after my first visits to Domaine Tempier, I set out to replicate this Provençal celebration. Now, on Bastille Day, we make a bouillabaisse in a copper cauldron in the fireplace so our customers can see the blazing fire and bubbling pot and inhale the powerful, alluring aromas of fresh fish and an open fire. We try to follow Lulu’s example and buy only fish caught that day. Although we’ve had to adapt the recipe to the local rockfish, halibut, Dungeness crab, mussels and clams, the smells and flavors evoke the Mediterranean and my time at Domaine Tempier. More important, however, they connect us to our own place on the Pacific.
We were not always so connected. Even as recently as the early 1980s, we kept salmon on the menu year-round. We served wild local king salmon from May until October, but during the off-season, we served Atlantic salmon, assuming that it was caught somewhere off the East Coast. When we learned that most Atlantic salmon is cleverly marketed farmed fish – raised on unwholesome feed, fed dye pellets to make the flesh more attractive, and destructive of the marine ecosystem – we stopped serving it. The decision had long-range implications: It prompted us to look more deeply into our local waters for fish to serve.
Pacific king salmon has now become one of the foods that define summer for us. This brilliantly colored, flavorful fish is caught just off the California coast, and our trusted fishmonger, Paul Johnson at Monterey Fish, buys them off the boats the same morning they return to the wharf. The first salmon in the late spring are fish that have come in close to shore after spending a year at sea, in prime condition for their trip up the coastal rivers to spawn. These fish have lean but tender flesh and an exquisite, delicate flavor. Later in the season, king salmon are oilier and their flavor is more intense, and we cook them differently.
Under the guidance of Paul Johnson, we started taking advantage of California’s rich fishing history and heritage by experimenting with less familiar local varieties. Fishermen on this part of the coast still bring in catches of local halibut, Pacific albacore and white California sea bass, as well as sand dabs, spot prawns, sardines and small squid from the waters around Monterey Bay. Larger fish such as sea bass and halibut have been more readily favored by our customers, and we’ve had to work a bit harder to get them to try the smaller species. Sardines, whose history is so tightly wound up with the rise and fall of whole towns along the California coast, were until recently all but unknown outside a can. We came up with a beautiful way to serve them fresh – filleted, marinated with olive oil and herbs and toasted lightly on a crouton. These sardine toasts are a revelation, and when we serve them our guests clamor for more.
Now, nearly three decades after my first visit to Domaine Tempier, we are still refining the way we think about fish. Although most of the fish we serve are caught locally, we feel compelled to support some small-scale fishermen on other coasts who fish responsibly and whose livelihoods depend on the support of restaurants such as ours. Paul Johnson has introduced us to haddock fishermen from Massachusetts who catch fish the old-fashioned way, off the back of a boat with a single hook and line. And recently, we’ve been buying from Louisiana shrimpers who use turtle-safe nets and who are struggling to recover after Hurricane Katrina.
As the world’s fishing industry has become increasingly industrialized, many small-scale sustainable fishermen have been forced out, and whole fisheries have been pushed to the edge of collapse. In general, we follow the guidelines set out by programs such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a consumer’s guide to sustainable seafood choices (mbayaq.org). But fisheries issues are extremely complex and ever-changing, and before buying a new fish, with the help of Monterey Fish, we learn as much as we can about both the state of the particular fishery and the practices of its fishermen. This transparency is vital. As we’ve learned with salmon, what seems at first to be a limitation can open up entirely new possibilities. Fish is one of the last wild foods we regularly see on the dinner table. If we want this to continue to be the case, we must carefully consider the ramifications of our buying decisions. For as Lulu taught me, nothing else brings us quite the same sense of the sustaining beauty of nature as a perfect fish, straight from the sea.