Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sailing to Byzantium, E.T.A.: Twelfth Night

Sailing to Byzantium, E.T.A.:  Twelfth Night  (January 6)

In my family we celebrated twelfth night, January 6, the last of the 12 days of Christmas in a slightly Byzantine way. My dad was Bulgarian, and though unorthodox himself, much of the Slavic community that centered on the Defense Language Institute in Monterey during the 50s and 60s were Russian Orthodox. Over 20 years we had several restaurants in Santa Cruz, (The Castle, Beach Hill Inn) where the local Bulgarians, Russians, Yugoslavs, and Central Asians gathered together for major Orthodox occasions notable for remarkable feasting, exuberant singing and the best of the best feeling. January 6 was the most celebratory of all the year’s feasts, the day of the Epiphany, which meant different things to us all, but in every case, a day worth celebrating. My dad and mom, the older two of their four kids, and a few volunteers all helped to cook, we each previewed each dish by tasting royally, and then the Slavs arrived and ate pretty much everything with relish. We all felt so good and so appreciative and so fortunate.

Using an evolutionary framework, for my slow but sure food lineage, I view my parents as my most recent common ancestors: migrating slowly from their country beginnings to their Byzantine but superbly slow-food artistic life-style.  Their journey in the world of great seafood travelled a path from the heady seeming abundance of early post war years to our present almost universally collapsing fisheries: captured in the famous poem of William Butler Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium”.   

Byzantine food can be defined as rich, sumptuously colored, intricately handcrafted in top quality media, resulting in reality-changing and timeless art.  Slow food is not only the opposite of fast food, slow food as embodied in my family is a life style that harkens back to the old days when my mom lived on a farm in Wisconsin and my dad herded sheep in Lovetch, Bulgaria.  Both mom and dad grew up out of their rural pasts to become selectively iconoclastic, creating a new tradition of the very highest quality, slow but surely fresh food, a tradition passed first to me, now to my son. Quality is the qoal, and slow and attentive is the means.  Slow food is sourced in the pleasure of great food that is tied to a vibrant sense of local community and resources, and in my case, to a particular ancestral line that seems to have diverged from all that came before.

One special dish my dad made for twelfth night was pickled cock’s combs, exemplary slow food. First, my dad and I went out to a rather odiferous local chicken ranch, the Boglen Ranch, where we selected the free-range chickens my dad wanted, then waited till after they were beheaded and ran headless through the yard finally to ground, then took this farm fresh eviscerated food back to the restaurant to start the painstaking pickling process for the combs of the roosters, which I never understood nor found worth the effort. Maybe it’s a taste acquired by Kazak nomads, which were my dad’s ancestors. But the method is timeless.

Everything we ate as kids growing up in Santa Cruz was if not equally enjoyed, at least selected the same way. When the kids wanted ground meat (hamburger), we went to the best butcher’s, where my dad selected the cuts he wanted and they were custom ground on the spot while we watched.  Only the best cuts. We saw what we were going to eat. We held the butcher accountable.

When we wanted fish, we went down to Stagnaro Brother’ fish market, two blocks from the restaurant, where Malio brought out that day’s catch, my dad selected what looked appetizing to him, and back we went to the restaurant. Everything wild and fresh to the day.  Sometimes the abalone guy came by our restaurant with 10 or 15 abalone, which for hours and hours he cleaned and pounded on the back room butcher block. Breaking down an abalone’s resistance to being a tender morsel can be devilishly trying but rewarding.

When grape leaves were in season, we ate sarma. The vines grew in our back yard, which was 2 acres of gardens and playhouses. The only thing frozen we ever ate was ice cream, and even that we sometimes made ourselves. We made our own pickles,our own yogurt, harvested fruit form our own back yard. Everything was as fresh and wild as possible, for those times. Probably because we lived in and from our restaurants, all our celebrations centered on great healthy food, always local, freshly prepared without chemicals, and on some occasions, greatly enhanced by festive drink.That said, I add that every childhood is distinct, even for the same parents and environment. Mine was Byzantine. I think the same may be said for every newborn organism of every species in all environemnts. Unique. Byzantine.

The following are my recommendations for great food and drink for Twelfth night and/or the day of the Epiphany, January 6. As with the wine recommendations in my first post, Top Two, (see archive at right) the process of optimizing pleasure usually involves trading off values that often compete in order to achieve the umbrella goal of optimal pleasure.  The top two sparkling wines that promise the greatest pleasure are J Schram and Domaine Carneros’ Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs. On Epiphany, all the waters of the world are considered blessed, and both great wine and great seafood embody this blessing. Both are superb quality and ecologically sustainably produced. The best of the best.

Unlike great wine, which involves little more than selection and acquisition, great food is more time-consuming: it has to be selected, acquired, prepared, and presented. But once a year Twelfth Night is definitely worth memorializing by taking greater effort.

As with great wine (see the Topo Two Blog for details), I rely on trusted experts to do most of the initial vetting of what is likely to be the best choices. For me in my ecosystem.  For sustainable food choices for Santa Barbara locals,  two of the best are the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean recommendations, which don’t always agree 100 % but are usually close enough for a good start. There is no short cut for attention to all details. So find a vet and use it.

The Greater Santa Barbara Ecosystem is home to numerous celebratory/gourmet seafoods, including: spiny lobster, sea urchin gonads, or uni; spot prawns; abalone; oysters; mussels; sheephead fish; rockfish; clams; mussels; squid; and sea cucumber.

The traditional celebratory dish to accompany world-class sparkling wine is caviar. In 2011 wild caviar is not an option for anyone wishing to function as a global ecosystem steward. That leaves farmed caviar. From my research I would recommend the caviar from A. naccarii sturgeon raised at Rio Frio, in Spain. This enterprise raises a native sturgeon species (A. naccarii without hormones, chemicals, or other stimulants designed to produce early maturity or massive egg production). The quality from all reports is excellent. The trade-off is food miles, although caviar is relatively light compared to champagne.

My first screen in the process of optimizing pleasure is quality. (A mid February post will rationalize aesthetics first, sustainability second). The food I recommend as a perfect choice for both J Schram and Le Rêve is our local California spiny lobster. The quality of these lobsters is the best. As a rule I think wild fish taste better than farmed fish, a topic for a later blog. But that would eliminates abalone, which is locally farmed, as well as most oysters ( next few blogs) and mussels. Since to a degree you are what you eat, lobsters in the wild eat mostly gourmet Channel marine organisms: sea urchins, clams, sponges, kelp, snails, mussels, scallops, barnacles, fish, and other lobsters.

Once a food has passed the food aesthetics screen, the next consideration is the quality of ecological sustainability. While recreational fishing of lobsters in Santa Barbara tends to be hand collected by licensed divers who harvest mainly on a one-to-one basis, though some use hoop nets, the commercial fishery relies on traps. The total number of traps per harvester is limited. Traps include escape vents for under size lobsters as well as biodegradable escape hatches to free lobsters in lost traps. Traps are still small-scale harvesting with minimal damage to the ecosystem, whereas major damage is wrought by fisheries using trawlers or large net systems. Although the spiny lobster commercial fishery is well-managed,  recreational catches are unmonitored and may pose a threat to sustainability.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Food Watch awards California spiny lobster their best seafood choice rating. This expert rating authority actually breaks down evaluations by area, so is usually my first choice for vetting sustainability, since the context is built into the rating.  However. most spiny lobster harvested in this area are exported.
    "Market Sources and Statistics:  California Spiny Lobster: Among domestic fisheries, P. interruptus is landed commercially only in California [NMFS Stats, 2003]. In recent years, most of the catch has been marketed in Asia and France; California fishermen have received between $6.75 and $8.00 per pound from dealers from these foreign markets. However, since 2000, depressed economies overseashave led California lobster fishermen to attempt to re-establish domestic markets [CA DFG, 2001]. In 2002, the last year for which data are complete, U.S. landings of California spiny lobster were 706,866 pounds, or 320.6 metric tons [NMFS Stats 2003]. This means that California spiny lobster accounts for about 2% of the total U.S. spiny lobster market [NMFS Stats 2003]. " MBA
My second vetting organization for sustainability is Blue Ocean,  which gives California spiny lobster their second highest rating, second largely because the spiny lobster population has diminished considerably  and is presently unknown. Total evaluation by Blue Ocean is the equivalent of an academic grade B, meaning things could improve.
“The California Spiny Lobster fishery is a small but locally important and largely sustainable fishery in southern California. Abundance of Spiny Lobsters off California varies with broad-scale changes in environmental conditions caused by El Nino and La Nina. State managers closely regulate commercial fishing for Spiny Lobster, but do not monitor recreational catches. Bycatch is low. Spiny Lobster traps generally allow undersize lobsters and other animals to escape.”

“The California spiny lobster fishery is identified as one of the highest priority candidates for an FMP due to an unknown population level and the extent of the recreational fishery harvest. The Spiny Lobster level of priority is also based in part on the state’s Marine Life Management Act (MLMA) master plan prioritization of the fishery for FMP development.  While the stock seems healthy, maintaining the lobster population’s sustainability over time is a concern for DFG and the OPC.  Additionally, the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Association has expressed interest in FMP development to maintain the sustainability of the commercial lobster fishery.” MBA

Although an obvious high-end seafood choice for pairing with the best sparkling wine might be red sea urchin, neither Blue Ocean nor MBA’s Seafood Watch gives this fishery highest marks, though both grant California’s red urchin industry second best rating. Read more by MBA about the red sea urchin industry and compare with Blue Ocean’s report

Three simple recipes that work wonderfully with the recommended sparkling wines:

Grilled lobster tails with lemon-grass smoke and

Roasted lobster with basil mint pesto.

Grilled lobster with orange chipotle glaze