ALASKA… Next stop Cordova and catching our own supper!

Posted on December 18, 2013 by CJ

Flight to Cordova… and a highlight… catching our own supper…

Checked in for the next leg of our journey to the town of Cordova, this small and remote town is easily accessible by air and ferry only. Flying Alaskan Airways was easy with short check-in times, relaxed and friendly (BUT still with all the security cautions in place) they have this down to a fine art as it is the only way to hop easily around this massive state.

…I still thought I could have packed less as I certainly had the heaviest bag! And Rosemary was particularly delighted to finally find a bear (albeit stuffed) in a glass case at the airport…. a Kodiak Brown Bear and apparently a world record breaker - standing around 10 foot tall.

We arrived on a small air-strip surrounded by spruce. We were the first stop of several as the plane headed for Seattle… collected our bags and picked up our transport for this leg of our visit – a rickety mini bus - and headed into town. We drove through marshy flat lands and scoured the country for moose (ideal place apparently – but they were shy today) on the 12 mile trip to the fishing community of Cordova…

Jim and Patti Callendar had invited us to a welcome drink and Jim tried out his new recipe… Black cod fillet – the dense fillets were diamond slashed and glazed with miso. The meatiness held the fish together and I thought the same technique would work with monkfish. Jim also served elk sausage and elk prosciutto from Colorado along with a few Alaskan beers and wines.  We were also joined by Justin – our photographer for the trip who had arrived the day before us to do a quick scout of the area… meet the locals and taste the beer!

Thea Thomas – one of  a few of Cordova’s salmon gill-netter fisherwomen turned up with a platter of smoked chum salmon, cream cheese, red onion, capers and crackers…smoked chum was new to us as Sockeye is the species most readily available.

Most impressive….
Thea’s career as a salmon gill netter is impressive – she talked openly about her 27 years in this job (she arrived in Cordova to work at the Government office with a Marine Science degree and soon turned her attention to purchasing her own boat and permit to fish).

Thea – like most other gill-netters in the area of the famous Copper River - fishes solo and is one of a few women who fish in these waters. She explained the ropes and talked about the salmon season (5 species of Pacific salmon are important fisheries in Alaska) and the ‘openers’ (the days when the fishermen are allowed to fish) starting in May with Sockeye (‘Reds’) and King and then onto Pinks, Chum and Coho…finishing in September. We learnt how the system works here. Thea fishes from May to September and then takes a break over the winter. Her main focus is the lucrative ‘Reds’ and King salmon and she would only head for chum if the price was right.

In numerous rivers and many communities all around the Alaskan coast the fishermen gear themselves up for the announcement of the first ‘opener’ of the season. As long as there is enough fish coming up the river… (they have sonar and OR ‘counters’ individually ‘ clicking’ the fish as they enter the river system) openers are announced – routinely on Monday and Thursdays – and the fishing is in full swing. This year – 2013 – saw a very late spring and the waters were still very cold… this slowed the amount of salmon coming into the river systems and hence – sadly no openers during our visit. The fisheries management in the area wanted to see around 200000 fish arrive in the river before the next openers and they had only counted around 90000 – so the opener was held up… much to the frustration of the local fisherman. It was explained to us that it is not just the sustainability of the fish OR the livelihoods of the Cordova fishermen, but other communities further up the river also needed to survive and the quantities of the fish was shared amongst them.

Everything is ‘counted’ here… fish going up the river, the fish that is actually caught by both commercial fishing and sports fishermen… It seems to me to be a great way of keeping track of how each species is fairing.

BUT… instead of watching gill-netting on our second day in Cordova – we took a charter boat out toward the Prince William Sound and caught our own fish… Pacific cod, halibut, Yellow Eye and Quill Back Rockfish and a skate – that we released… Each fish landed was bled and chilled ready for the trip back to shore.

We spent a blissful day watching for wildlife, catching our supper with rod and line (I can boast the first catch of the day with a Quill-Back Rockfish) we all had a licence for the day and all our catch was noted – with the exception of the Pacific cod.  The weather was cold, but the water calm and our experienced skipper knew the best places for a ‘guaranteed’ (!) catch. I have fished in the British Channel and caught my own Atlantic cod… this was now been topped by far with the landing of the related species Pacific cod – which has a creamier texture in my opinion – to our Atlantic species. We were delighted to stop fishing for a short period as we were joined by a enthusiastic pod of over 20 Doll porpoises (black and white and a mini look-a-like to their close relative –  the Orca) who played put on a acrobatic display around our boat.

On arrival back at shore I spent a very absorbing hour (I was in my element and delighted to be handling this fish straight from the sea) with Ian as we cleaned and cut all the fish we had caught ready for our dinner guests that night. Rowley, Rosemary and myself had a handful of dishes lined up and enjoyed working with the resident chef – Christian – in the preparation of a relaxed supper for the local Cordova fishing community. Ian and I swapped cutting tip techniques and I had a chance to put my own cutting experience to practice on this wonderfully fresh fish. I noted with interest that the fish had come out of such cold water that it hadn’t quite reached ‘stiff alive’ rigor by the time we started the cutting. The resulting fillets were translucent and firm.

Rosemary and I proposed that Rowley take lead as head chef – but each with our own culinary styles and approach there was never a moment of ‘too many cooks’ as we cracked on with cooking our own catch. The choice of fish had us all thinking and we ignored the 2 dish rule and went about cooking a number of dishes with our fish. Straight from sea to table – a creative chefs dream…

I chose a barbecued cedar plank smoked sockeye (this was defrosted as none was available – but the Alaskans DO really know how to freeze fish perfectly -so you would not know!) and served this with a garlicky Salsa Verde. The fresh cod, rockfish and halibut had to be tried ‘en papilotte’ and each was cooked with lemon thyme, a drizzle of olive oil and light seasoning. My final dish was roasted Halibut Steaks with a Lemon and Salmon Roe Beurre Blanc. I love salmon roe and each Pacific species has its own roe varying in colour and texture. I had sockeye salmon roe which produces large golden amber pearls.

Rowley produced a modern twist on Brandade (and he briefly salted our Pacific cold tails with salt, thyme and garlic) poached this, whizzed it with the usual ingredients and served it on toast. He cooked a further 4 dishes including a rich anchovy sauce (that is really worth replicating) to go with his halibut. Rosemary cooked a wild rice pilaf and braised cod in this and she served a marinated sockeye salmon first course. The evening was hosted by Joe and we were thrilled to meet local fishermen to share our food.

This state really prides itself on the management of its fisheries – there are many systems in place to keep a close and watchful eye on the important commercial species which have been a key part of the constitution of Alaska over the last 50 or more years.

Cordova is a remote with a population of around 3000. We stayed at the Orca Lodge which is on a site of an old cannery that disappeared after the dramatic effects of the 1989 oil spill in the Prince William Sound – it offers accommodation for fishermen and hikers and those on adventure breaks… It is set in a stunning environment right on the water with no signal and wifi (absolutely perfect for a complete escape) and the view from the various cabins is breathtakingly beautiful: sea otters laze on their backs in the shallows and bald-headed eagles perch on the posts. Our hosts say that Orca’s appear regularly in these waters and this is always a special day when they visit and yes - one can expect a bear to nonchalantly wander past (at the right time of the year).

They catered for us here and we did have an excellent breakfast with home-baked fresh goods and all cooked to order courtesy of chef Christian and oh –  simply the best hash-browns ever!

The Orca Lodge has its own boat – ours was skippered by Washington born Ian who spends his summers in Cordova – so knows the waters well – our boat is moored outside the door – straight down the plank to board and with a picnic lunch too… simply can’t beat this!

And finally … the rain – it didn’t stop…. and our last morning in Cordova saw torrential rain as we enjoyed an outdoor Mexican style take-away breakfast – well – under a canopy anyway.. and then a quick tour of Thea’s boat (all colour coordinated and immaculately kept!). We met the fisheries and game management team who were being hounded by the fishermen who were suffering from cabin fever and desperate for news of the next opener…

Next stop Juneau… and more fishing for black cod!

Over and out