Along with the ruggedly handsome and breathtakingly beautiful coastline, one other ingredient in Maine’s long-running romance with the sea has been there from day one.
If ever there was a place that lived by the motto “There are plenty of other fish in the sea,” it’s Portland, Maine. And not because of an abnormally high percentage of jilted lovers among its citizens. It’s just that after a couple of centuries of study, Portland knows the difference between good fish and superb fish. The culinary world knows it too.
Named America’s Foodiest Small Town by Bon Appétit Magazine, Portland is an urban garden of earthly and ocean-ly delights. Throughout the Portland and Casco Bay area, James Beard-recognized and Michelin-starred chefs work day and night to make the dining world a better place.
However, it’s not like tonight’s fresh catch leaped out of Casco Bay and landed in your chef’s Mauviel skillet. There’s that whole catching part. And landing.
“Portland has a really long history as a seaport,” Natalie Springuel of the University of Maine’s Sea Grant Program explained. “And there’s a very robust fishing industry out of Portland. A lot of the fishermen out of Portland land their fish there too. The word "landing" refers to which port you bring your catch to.”
Think of George as... the link between fishermen and restaurants in Portland. The fresh mussels or codfish or squid or halibut on hundreds of dinner plates at Portland restaurants tonight are there, in part, because of George.
Rob Rosenthal, on Portland fishmonger George Parr
So, we’ve fished. We’ve landed. Now it’s time for another time-honored tradition. Which means it’s time to set your course for the Portland Fish Exchange. “We have a handful of places in the U.S. that have fish auctions,” said Natalie Springuel. “Portland still has one. So, chefs will go to the Portland Fish Exchange and they'll buy fish.”
No fish exchange worth its salt could exist without the presence – make that omnipresence – of the local fishmonger. You’ve probably heard that word. You may not know the rest. First, they’ve been around forever, or at least since the middle ages. In fact, one of the first guilds in the western world was the Fishmongers’ Company, chartered in London in 1272.
Fishmongers do everything humanly possible between the landing and the sale, drawing from their training, experience and, in many cases, family legacy. A fishmonger’s skill set includes: selecting, procuring, handling, gutting, boning, filleting, displaying, merchandising and selling their prize catches. They may even sing a heartfelt chorus of Molly Malone. And a salty sailor joke is usually thrown in free.
While Portland’s fishmongers continue to be a key link between sea and table, some restaurants take an even more direct route. Certain enterprising chefs have developed business relationships with the fishermen and buy their fish right off the boat. In some cases, fishermen will bring their catch directly to the restaurant so the chef can work with the freshest fish possible.
To get any fresher than that, your chef would have to take the skillet – and you – on the boat. Knowing Portland and its romance with the sea, they’re probably already picking out the fish-themed dinnerware.
The Swashbuckling Fishmonger of Portland:Listen to Episode 3