Eating With The Ecosystem at Boston’s Ten Tables

Ten Tables, the wonderful farm to table restaurant in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood (reviewed this past fall), hosted in April a unique seafood dinner sponsored by  Eating with the Ecosystem.  Fisherwoman and environmental activist Sarah Schumann, who in addition to her fishing license has a degree in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, started Eating with the Ecosystem to advocate for an approach to sustainable New England seafood focused on “a place-based conception of sustainability.”  Schumann’s focus is on the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Southern New England’s Block Island Sound, Nantucket Shoals and the coastal salt ponds of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound to Northern New England’s Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

Last month’s inspirational seafood dinner at Ten Tables focused on the riches of George’s Bank, a shallow plateau under the Atlantic Ocean, running from Cape Cod, MA to Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, one of the largest fishing grounds in the world.  Because it is a shallow offshore plateau, it experiences a high degree of light penetration, and because it is located where the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Current, it is flooded with nutrients.  These natural features make it highly productive, and it has provided a stable food source for New England for centuries.  A myriad of sea life calls this special place home, but overfishing and climate change are presenting challenges to this historically abundant and important fishing ecosystem.  The Georges Bank most famous denizen-Atlantic cod, has become a shadow of its former self, and its role as dominant species in the ecosystem has faded.  The dinner at Ten Tables gave guests an opportunity to try some of this ecosystem’s less familiar species  while gaining an understanding of the changing ecosystem of Georges Bank.

Ten Table’s Chef Sean Callahan presented a creative menu showcasing a diverse sampling of seafood items. While dining on the first course of succulent scallop ceviche (expertly prepared with  fresh raw scallops marinated in citrus juices and spices), Eating with the Ecosystem’s  Sarah Schumann explained that the usual and unsustainable mode has been to fish in the Georges Bank for one species only, namely cod.  This upset the balance of the ecosystem: with the depletion of cod, less popular species, such as dogfish and skates have taken their place in the ecosystem.  In order to keep the balance, Schumann suggested harvesting species across the food chain.  For instance, instead of catching only cod, we should harvest fish across the food chain—proportional amounts of large fish, smaller fish, crustaceans, and seaweed.  According to Schumann, we can take a lesson from the North Sea: the fishing industry there throws fewer species back, and that ecosystem has experienced “less perturbation as a result.”  This approach permits the ecosystem to regenerate and provides enough balance to allow all the species to thrive.

The second course of house-cured hake brandade (hake fish cured in an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil)  with pickles and toast delighted the taste buds.  Hake fish comes from the same order (Gadiformes) as cod but is a small fish averaging only one to eight pounds.   While enjoying this delicious dish, the featured speaker Angela Sanfilippo of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association spoke about the methods fishermen are using to ensure a sustainable harvest.  Nets with wider holes allow young fish to escape.  Certain areas are maintained off limits until the stock has replenished itself.  She expounded upon the complications arising due to the acidification of the oceans; as more fossil fuels are burned, the oceans take in more CO2, and this increases the ph of the sea, affecting sea life in the ocean.  Shellfish can’t develop their shells, and shifting water temperatures cause entire species of fish to move elsewhere.  With every tasty morsel of smokey hake a new fact was  taken in.  After she departed from our table, the main dish arrived.

Skate wing with fingerling potatoes provided an exceptional finish to the seafood.  My education, however, was far from over.  A dining companion, who works with the Coast Guard, related to me the challenges present in implementing fishing regulations.  Simply stated, fishermen work hard jobs to bring in large catches to make money, and regulators apply pressure on them to bring in less, even as the demand for fish is high.  Competition from other boats, licensing for specific species, and other obstacles make navigating the way to a sustainable approach very difficult. Overfishing is not easily prevented, but neither is economic viability for fishermen easily achieved.  Still, consumer craving for hake and skate, with more market value placed on these “throwaway” species, might help.

In his brilliant Four Fish, The Future of the Last Wild Food (Penguin Books, New York, 2011), Paul Greenberg described the contemporary fish market, in which four varieties of fish (salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna) dominate:  “Four archetypes of fish flesh which humanity is trying to master in one way or another either through the management of a wild system, through the domestication and farming of individual species, or through the outright substitution of one species [as an example, tilapia for cod] for another.”  As my dining companion suggested, the management of a wild system is rife with difficulty, and we all are familiar with the environmental degradation resulting from the farming of fish.  According to Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish, 3 billion pounds of farmed salmon are produced every year, three times the amount of wild fish harvested.  Eating With the Ecosystem’s approach provides a ray of hope, and Fish Watch, maintained by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) is also a useful resource for the seafood consumer.

Dessert appears, a beautiful goat cheese panna cotta with rhubarb compote.  Light, tart, and ever so slightly sweet, it’s a perfect finish as I ponder the efforts behind the meal.  By fusing the knowledge of marine scientists and commercial fishermen with the culinary creativity of innovative chefs, dinners sponsored by Eating with the Ecosystem provide a deep understanding of the special places in the ocean that produce the seafood we enjoy.  Information concerning future dinners will be noted on Eating with the Ecosystem’s website.   Last spring, dinners were held in Rhode Island at restaurants in Newport, Bristol, and Tiverton.  Beginning in September, plans are to hold additional dinners in the Boston area at Cambridge’s Henrietta’s Table, Newton’s Lumiere and Tremont 647 in Boston’s South End.
[Ten Tables, 597 Centre Street, Boston (Jamaica Plain), 617.524.8810, Dinner: Mon-Thurs 5:30PM-10:00PM, Fri-Sat 5:30PM-10:30PM, Sun 5:00PM-9:00PM, www.tentables.net/]
[Lucas Knapp – Good Eats Guru, with contributions by Frank W. Barrie]

 

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