Back Soon: sustainable arctic char from the Nunavut territory | Bleader

Back Soon: sustainable arctic char from the Nunavut territory


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Arctic char from a remote Inuit fishing village in northern Canada's Nunavut territory started turning up last month on the menus of half the trendy restaurants in Chicago. And if you’d looked in the right places on the Internet, you could have followed it each step of the way.

CleanFish's Alisha Lumea talks about Nunavut Arctic Char from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Arctic char is a relative of both salmon and trout, which spawns multiple times in a lifespan of 20 years or more. Because of its hardiness and relatively low impact on other aquatic life, it’s rated a “best choice” for sustainable seafood by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other organizations which follow them in issuing guidelines to diners, such as Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

Typically arctic char are small, about two to four pounds. But the wild arctic char fished in Cambridge Bay, a Nunavut village of about 1,500 located 150 miles north of the Arctic circle, are unusually large, seven to ten pounds or more, with creamy, delicate golden-orange flesh. CleanFish, a New York-based company which exclusively brokers sustainable fish, spotted them frozen at the Boston Seafood Show, but saw potential in them for fine-dining restaurants, and worked out the logistics of getting them in fresh form to U.S. markets.

As CleanFish “evangelist” Alisha Lumea explained when I interviewed her for my Sky Full of Bacon podcast on sustainable fish, “So much of the discussion on seafood has been dominated by a boycott mentality and a whole world of prohibitions.” CleanFish aims to take what they consider a more positive approach by helping to develop profitable markets for fisheries with quality product and sustainable practices.

Lumea says the Nunavut fishery met CleanFish’s goals not only in terms of quality and sustainability, but also for “supporting communities who otherwise would have a hard time existing and continuing in their way of life.” The season for the Nunavut char is short—about eight weeks in the summer and fall—and CleanFish began promoting the fish to the trade earlier this year with an evocative video on its Web site of the fishermen at work against rocky gray land- and seascapes.

When Chicago fish distributor Supreme Lobster started placing orders for the upcoming season, sales rep Carl Galvan began featuring them heavily on his Twitter feed (“Chicagofishdude”), complete with photos snapped in Supreme’s walk-in cold storage rooms. “NUNAVUT!!!!These things are spectacular!!” he tweeted alongside a photo of a gape-mouthed char on July 22.

The high-end restaurants Galvan services are always on the lookout for new and rarefied ingredients, yet they also want to be able to tout sustainability in the meats and produce they buy. Perhaps most of all, they want a story that helps make a dish sound special to diners. Nunavut arctic char—luscious, eco-friendly, from a small native community and with a short deadline before the season was over—was exactly the kind of fish with star quality chefs look for. Soon they were being served up all over town—Blackbird, Chaise Lounge, Sunda (where they became sashimi), the fish counter at Fox & Obel.

Now it was the chefs’ turn to trumpet arctic char online. “This thing is a beauty. I can’t believe the[y] spend most of the year under ice,” tweeted Troy Graves of Eve, while Phillip Foss of Lockwood blogged his experience with the fish next to a delectable photo of the char accompanied by “shaved and sauteed artichokes with garlic and shallots, a puree of carrots and basil milk.”

Galvan says he should have more back in stock next week.