Why New Zealand's salmon is king of the world
It might be how the fork pushes into the salmon fillet, the browned seasoned top parts and a big, pearly just-cooked orange flake peels gently away. Glistening, rich, yet so delicately flavoured.
Or maybe it's that glistening sashimi slice, or nigiri with a slice from the belly draped over rice, a perfectly poised experience of clean freshness and fish.
New Zealand salmon has always been special. It also ticks plenty of health boxes (omega oils in particular), it's sustainabie so you can eat it with a healthy conscience and it's the go-to fish when you need to impress.
Smoked salmon is a spin-off success with a cult following in its own right. Smoked salmon and cream cheese rule among the bagel crowd. Eggs benedict goes up a gear with smoked salmon, and the ultimate pre-dinner nibble must be a curl of thinly sliced smoked salmon on rye with capers, a few drops of lemon juice, cracked black pepper and a few chives ...
Not all salmon are equal
"Let me just call it an orange fish," says David Cole. He's Mt Cook Alpine Salmon's chief executive and we are talking about the imported salmon now appearing in supermarkets.
This salmon comes from Norway. It is atlantic salmon that's farmed, killed, frozen, shipped to New Zealand, thawed and sold as steaks and fillets for cheaper than our own farmed salmon.
"New Zealand king salmon is the creme de la creme of all salmon," Cole says. "What the Norwegians are bringing in is for someone who just wants to buy an orange fish. That's the market they satisfy. We are at the other end of this spectrum."
Cole is in full flight and obviously there is a financial interest in the local salmon community's backlash against the cheap imports. But the debate is also a good opportunity to have a think about our salmon - where it comes from, how it is raised, and how good it is.
King of fishes
All New Zealand salmon is the pacific king variety. We farm the king salmon because it was the only species that managed to survive and thrive here after repeated efforts to introduce a variety of different species. Ironically, king salmon was kind of plan B. Our pioneers really wanted the atlantic salmon they remembered fondly from home.
Three decades ago various entrepreneurs expanded on the idea of the successful fish hatcheries to create farms.Now the half dozen or so serious farms come under umbrella group Aquaculture New Zealand.
King salmon run long distances up rivers and up waterfalls to spawn. Then they die. It's an all or nothing fish. They store oil as energy to fuel all this power they need. Only New Zealand and one other significant place farm them, possibly because they are so tough to handle.
NZ King Salmon's Grant Rosewarne says if atlantic salmon is like farming sheep, then king salmon are like farming gazelles. "It's a very powerful fish, a flighty fish."
About two-thirds of salmon comes from NZ King Salmon's Marlborough farms, roughly another third comes from Big Glory Bay pens in Stewart Island, and the final few percent come from Canterbury - freshwater pens in the hydro canals and a small sea farm at the Akaroa inlet.
Best in the world?
New Zealand's salmon farmers rate their king salmon among the world's best and so do overseas customers. King salmon are the oiliest, a good thing for texture, flavour and omega 3 content, if that's important.
On its website, NZ King Salmon talks about Kiwi fish's bright vibrant orange flesh that has "an elegant balance of umami flavours and a soft and buttery texture". It continues ... "king salmon have a complex, yet delicate mouthfeel that coats the palate appealingly, making it a pleasure to eat".
Salmon quality is dictated by farming methods and food, of course, but also by the quality of water they are raised in. New Zealand's salmon grow up in some of the cleanest water on earth.
The entire New Zealand industry gets the highest tick of approval from overseas watchdogs, such as Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium - unlike Norway interestingly. New Zealand salmon farms are regarded as some of the best operations around for sustainability, environment management and for the salmon they produce.
Cole, from Mt Cook Alpine, says he likes king salmon because it tastes better than atlantic salmon. He says the rest of the world agrees, "because they pay a premium for king salmon".
Best of the best?
This is where it gets interesting. It's easy to spot the quality difference between the pale, mushy looking thawed Norwegian fillets in the seafood counter and the bright, fresh Kiwi salmon alongside (even if the Norwegian is $25 a kg versus $36 a kg), but true salmon fans may also find significant differences between New Zealand farms.
The first split is sea farms and tiny freshwater farms in the hydro canals near Twizel.
Rosewarne says both are great products, but different. "You are more likely to get a larger fish with a richer flavour if it goes to sea, in our opinion. Fresh water people disagree with that. In certain conditions you can get a muddy flavour in fresh water environment."
Cole says they have held blind tastings in many markets and "invariably most blind tasters prefer freshwater salmon". He says his fish are leaner and swim in a current that refreshes itself at nine million litres a minute, "not just lolling around in a marine farm to the ebbs and flows of the tide".
"We [Mt Cook Alpine] describe our texture and taste as clean and subtle and delicate." And let's not forget it was freshwater Mt Cook Alpine salmon that Heston Blumenthal chose for his Fat Duck menu when the three-Michelin star restaurant opened in Melbourne last year.
Then there is the oil content. The split here is between the bigger sea farms and boutique outfits like Mt Cook Alpine and Akaroa Salmon, which is a tiny sea farm. Akaroa's Duncan Bates offers some figures: wild New Zealand king salmon have an oil content in the flesh of about 9 per cent, his sea-farmed salmon (fed a low-energy diet so they grow more slowly to enhance quality) are about 10 pe rcent, and wild US king salmon are about 11 per cent.
Mt Cook's Cole says his salmon are down to about 13-14 per cent. Both Bate and Cole say this leanness gives their salmon a firmer texture and cleaner mouthfeel.
Cole says the high fat content of some sea farm salmon means "it tends to play on you after awhile". "You know that fatty taste when you get half way through a salmon and you think, 'just no more, please'."
Both suggest that it's due to the bigger companies feeding for speed of growth rather than high end quality. Rosewarne admits his Marlborough salmon target is 24 per cent, plus or minus 2 per cent. But that's achieved through breeding programmes, not diet. "Our research shows diet can only make a 1 per cent difference in oil content," he says.
"In our opinion, in terms of sushi and sashimi applications, also cooked applications, that's the sweet spot. You can get less in other environments and some people might prefer that. Some people might not want to eat wagyu beef, and we supply the wagyu beef of the sea."
Best taste test
Salmon producers are passionate about their products. Despite the different takes on it, they agree New Zealand king salmon rates among the world's best. If not the best.
Half our salmon is exported, but that leaves plenty of world class salmon for locals. A wild-caught salmon is probably the ultimate taste for reasons well beyond just the fish, but next would be farmed salmon "from the farmgate" as is possible at some sites, and fish that has been rushed to your favourite outlet.
Salmon lovers say the true test is to eat it fresh and raw - thinly sliced as sashimi. That hides nothing and reveals everything.
Top slice that pristine orange Kiwi fillet, draw a long, really sharp knife across it from the knife's base to its tip in a single vertical stroke. This is for a clean slice of fish between half a centimetre to more than 1cm wide. Try with a dab of soy, if you must.