Tourists ask me all the time about where I get my fish and I tell them I usually stick to two local places that I trust. But once in a while, if I’m on the road I may take a look at a fish market just out of curiosity. Sometimes, if not too far from home I end up bringing home dinner, if I like what I see. Here are 5 tips to finding a good fresh fish market. This is strictly about fresh fish, since today good frozen seafood is readily available. Buying fresh local seafood from fish markets and co-ops is usually a good way to help local fishing communities as well as sourcing the absolute freshest seafood available.
Location of the Fish Market
It’s all about location isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better sourcing Fresh Fish and shellfish from a place close to those that caught it. The closer the better, look for fish markets or fishermen co-ops close to or even on the docks. Fish markets that get their seafood direct from a short-list of local fishing boats is also a good choice.
The closer you are to the fishermen, the better chance you have of getting actually fresh, not previously frozen seafood. The fresh fish at the supermarket seafood counter may look good, but if the fish is imported from Iceland or Peru, it was frozen then thawed. That means you have to cook whatever you buy in short order, you cannot re-freeze it. Here is my bottom line: If I’m seeing “fresh” fish nowhere near a body of water, then I’m either choosing frozen seafood…or a steak.
Sights, Smells and Sounds
I think this is an obvious one, but a fish market should look clean and not smell “fishy.” A briny, marine smell is acceptable, especially at a co-op or wharf market, but you should not gag when you open the door. A slight lingering odor of cleaning products reassures me that the place gets cleaned up on a regular basis, but if the place stinks of bleach they must be hiding something.
If you buy from a wharf, co-op or fish processing facility, noise is expected. I know fresh fish comes from a busy wharf, especially in the morning. If I hear forklifts buzzing about, freezer doors slamming and guys yelling, I know product is being moved. Away from the water, a good fish market should have some obvious activity out back: loading/unloading trucks, filleting fish, employees hosing things down etc…
The Seafood Display Case
Everything else goes out the window if what is on display is not in pristine condition. There better be ice in that case or else it better be obviously frigid. I’m appalled at what passes for fish counters at some major supermarkets: dried out fillets, standing water, tiny tuna and swordfish steaks with more bloodline than meat… There is no way that a 3-sided glass counter is cold enough to keep previously frozen fish in good condition without a bed of ice. If the seafood is kept in a closed chilled display, I want to see and hear a blast of cold air when the counter person slides open the door.
After my purchase I’m also looking for adequate packing materials. I may be only going across town but they don’t know that. My fish or shellfish should be on ice, in an insulated bag or both. Just in case, I always bring a cooler with me.
The fish and shellfish on display should have the correct species and market size (ex: large haddock, chicken lobster etc…) plus where it was caught. Right now there is a major issue with imported fish being mislabeled in the US, as if you needed another reason to buy local. As seafood consumers get more involved in sourcing local products, more fish markets are providing information about who is catching their fish.
Some fish sellers are not just listing the port, but the actual vessel that caught it, a great way to give these hard working guys the credit they deserve. Fishermen co-ops and wharves may not have all the product information labeled, but the counter person should be able to tell you everything you need to know.
It is probably because I grew up in the fishing industry, but I’m expecting a good fish market to be a little rough around the edges. I want my fish dealer to be well versed in fish and fishing, not sales. That being said, a gruff counter person with no knowledge of their products is enough for me to leave. I’m looking for an honest fish dealer, the one that is going to tell me “no you don’t want that, this is what you want, it just came in..” I like that, it shows knowledge of the product and pride in sharing that knowledge with the customer. I’ll take that any day over fake smiles and pleasantries.