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Jammin’ With Wild Salmon Blind Tasting: A Report

The salmon taste committee was blindfolded. Dumb idea.
The salmon taste committee was blindfolded. Dumb idea.

Last night twelve diligent Dishers showed up at TJ’s Seafood Market to learn about and taste different types of salmon. The event was sparked by a debate last week on whether Copper River salmon is more flavorful than other wild salmon or if it is just  marketed more effectively. One seafood industry insider said, “We in the fish business call Copper River Salmon, Stupid River Salmon. Way over priced.”

Copper River salmon was the winner.
Copper River salmon was the winner.

We set out to see if this was true. The goal was to taste test three wild salmon samples in a blind test. The first “problem” was, due to the Memorial Day weekend, the supplier couldn’t secure three wild varieties so we had to substitute an Atlantic farm raised salmon from the Bay of Fundy at the last minute.

The second mishap was my fault–I insisted the tasters wear blindfolds. I thought they would be influenced by the color of the fish. It worked–they couldn’t see the differences in color, but they also couldn’t see their evaluation sheets. Then, halfway through the program, I learned from a chef at the table that Copper River isn’t necessarily redder than other salmon and that some vendors  “dye the fish to [a restaurant’s] order.”

That was just one of the eye opening lessons we  learned last night. TJ’s marketing director Jon Alexis gave a nice Salmon 101 class and his mother, owner Caren, enlightened the group with stories from her years of experience as a fishmonger. Jump for the full report.

UPDATE: Click here for Worzel’s report.

Caren and Jon Alexis of TJ's Seafood know a lot about salmon.
Caren and Jon Alexis of TJ's Seafood know a lot about salmon.

•    Three salmons were tested and rated on taste, texture, and juiciness:

1.    Atlantic farm-raised salmon from the Bay of Fundy ($13.99/pound  at TJ’s) is known as the best of farm-raised variety because of the extreme tides in the bay. The difference in water level between high tide and low tide can range up to 48 feet. This constant flow and circulation of water keeps the “farms” cleaner and filled with natural nutrients.
2.    Ocean caught wild troll king. ($18-$25/pound at TJ’s). Fish caught in the ocean.
3.   Copper River. ($38.99/pound at TJ’s). “NFL Athletes of the salmon world,” said Jon. They swim up a 300-mile river full of rapids.

•    The scoring was tight: #1 Copper River (124 total points), #2 Ocean caught (122 total points), and #3 Atlantic farm-raised (121 total points). (I picked farm-raised as the best.)

•    All of  the samples were cooked the same—lightly oiled, pan-seared, and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper—by TJ’s chef Chase Cheatham.

Bonus meal: Chef Cheatham prepared plates of TJ's house made alder and hickory smoked salmon served with hand sliced egg, capers, and piped sour creme.
Bonus meal: Chef Cheatham prepared plates of TJ's housemade alder and hickory smoked salmon served with hand sliced egg, capers, and piped sour creme.

•    Our group, the SideDish Tasters, included a couple of CPAs, a chef, a sommelier, a couple of software geniuses, a former newspaper reporter, a psychological analyst, a wine rep, and a former Alaskan resident and fisherman. The nice wine rep provided the group with wine. (Thanks, Horizon Wines.)

•    Jon said salmon is full of Omega 3’s; is a “liquid plumber for arteries”; and reverses aging. (I have trouble with the last bit but that is just me.)

•    River fishing vs.sea fishing. The salmon that actually make it to the rivers and up the rapid currents are not just the “Olympians” of the salmon world, they taste better because they are higher in fat, stored as energy. The fish is highest in fat (and energy) just as they reach the mouth of the river and begin their journey up the rushing river.  Some people feel that a salmon that swims too far up stream—in some cases 300 miles– is less tasty because they’ve used up most of their fat supply.

•    Besides the farm-raised vs. river-caught debate, you should also know the kind of salmon you are eating. All of our samples were the best—King or Chinook—known for its softer texture and rich fatty flavor. There is also coho (more firm), sockeye (used for canning as well), and pink (not as fatty). If you order Copper River you must also ask what kind of salmon you are getting. It gets complicated. And you’d be surprised how many servers–even chefs–don’t even know what they’re selling. When you ask what kind of salmon they say, “Copper River.” Wrong answer.

•    I have a “Seafood Watch” pocket guide. It’s a great tool for hammering waiters and chefs with questions. You can download one  here. Also spend some time on this site as it is full of great information.

•    Our salmon tasters want to do more of these types of tastings. We are considering  holding a caviar tasting. Stay tuned.

12 comments on “Jammin’ With Wild Salmon Blind Tasting: A Report

  1. This is so cool. I personally don’t love love salmon but DDude does so I try to buy it for him now and then. I never know what to get, and now I do. What kind of wine did you pair it with?

  2. Tasters had a choice of:

    Raventos 2006 Cava (bubbles)
    Gobelsburg 2007 GruVe (white)
    Ch. Routas 2008 G/S/C (rose)
    Copain 2008 Pinot Noir (red)

  3. [img=http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3059/3573494121_4de20636ea.jpg?v=0]

  4. Wow that scoring was tight! I agree that’s CR salmon’s way overpriced, but that’s the supply/demand system at work…

    and I hate that many chefs don’t bother educating themselves about their ingredients. Diners SHOULD be inquisitive, as you suggested.

    Sounds like it was a great event!

  5. Bay of Fundy farmed salmon is Atlantic salmon, genus Salmo. King and Chinook (which are 2 names for exactly the same Pacific fish) are genus Oncorhynchus. Completely different salmon you were tasting.

    I guess that makes Yukon salmon the Superman of salmon, because the river is even longer than the Copper.

    And finally, the the salmon that actually make it to the rivers/currents are not just the “Olympians” of the salmon world, they are the breeders of the salmon world and are just like any other salmon that makes it. If they didn’t make it, there would be no wild salmon, as salmon only breed in fresh water.

  6. Thanks to the Alexis family and Nancy for a very fun and enlightening event. with the cross section of people there we had some great conversation and tasted some great food besides the salmon, made some new friends. let’s do it again!

  7. A little confused. I understand CR scored the highest, but could the tasters identify the Coppper River v. Atlantic v. Ocean?

  8. Bill, couple of points….

    To add on to your comment RE: atlantic salmon, it should also be pointed out that the atlantic salmon farmed at the bay of fundy (and most everywhere, I believe) is the European Atlantic Salmon. One of the biggest problems with farm raising these salmon in those areas are the impact that escaped fish have on native populations. I read yesterday that apparently only a 100 or so native salmon actually return each year to spawn in some of the BofFundy rivers and most people point to the farming as the culprit.

    “I guess that makes Yukon salmon the Superman of salmon, because the river is even longer than the Copper.”

    According to the CR marketing juggernaut the length of the river is only part of what makes the fish so superlative. The severity of the slope (and thus the speed of the river) are why in theory the salmon are more “roided up”, so to speak, and which would also explain the nature of the Olympian comment.

    I was at the tasting and I preferred the Copper River salmon, but I also immediately knew that it was CR. The farmed was also very good. I did not care for the line caught however. I speculated if the firmer texture and reduced fat content could be related to time to market (line fishermen can go out for long trips, gill netters are usually in/out same day) or perhaps because these fish are simply surviving in the ocean and not necessarily preparing to spawn do they not keep that extra fat on their bodies.

    Thanks again Jon, Caren, and Nancy. I had a great time.

  9. I should also point out that if you factor in the price differential, Bay of Fundy was the clear winner.

    Sorry Jon and Mrs. Alexis!

  10. “I should also point out that if you factor in the price differential, Bay of Fundy was the clear winner.”

    no apology necessary. we are very proud of our Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon.

    We have it everyday of the year at TJ’s…we agree its a fantastic value and hope to see all of in the store buying it often!