Ark of Taste
The American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) is a paddlefish native to the Mississippi River system. It is a primitive cartilaginous fish that has remained unchanged for some 300 million years; it is closely related to sturgeon. The American Paddlefish is one of only two such species in the world; the other is the Chinese paddlefish, thought to be extinct from the Yangtze River. This amazing fish is a plankton feeder. It dines on zooplankton, swimming through the river with its mouth hanging open, collecting microscopic plankton, and using electroreceptors in its long, paddle-shaped snout (called a rostrum) to detect its microscopic prey in murky river waters. It is sometimes called the spoonbill or, erroneously, spoonbill catfish (it is unrelated to catfish, which are bottom-feeders). It is harvested primarily for its caviar, which closely resembles that of sturgeon. Its meat is of secondary importance, but is also delicious fresh or smoked.The average size of a mature, egg-bearing female is about four feet and 35-40 pounds, though paddlefish can reach six feet long and 200 pounds. They are one of the largest freshwater fish in America.
Due to its unique diet of zooplankton, the farming of adult paddlefish neatly sidesteps the many pitfalls commonly associated with aquaculture or fish farming, such as pollution, feeding of staple crops or other fish to farmed fish, and overbreeding. Among the world’s sustainable fisheries, it is typically preferable to procure sustainably wild caught fish, as opposed to farmed fish. With the paddlefish, the exact opposite is true: it is farmed (or “ranched” in reservoirs, quarries, and other large bodies of water) paddlefish that promises to efficiently, cleanly, and fairly deliver caviar (and meat as well) to market.
Paddlefish have been harvested for caviar for many, many years; only recently have they been harvested for their caviar. Only now are the specific qualities of paddlefish caviar coming to light. Having reviewed the written comments of numerous chefs, gourmands, foodies, and Slow Food members, it is apparent that today’s artisanal paddlefish producers are creating a caviar that rates of the finest quality. Compared to Caspian Sea caviar, paddlefish caviar has a similar balance between saline, richness, and earthiness. It has less “pop” and texture than sturgeon caviar, tending toward a bit softer texture. The flavors of the best paddlefish caviar are long lasting, balanced, warm, buttery rich, slightly nutty, with no metallic notes or other off-flavors. At times it reminds of sevruga from the Caspian Sea.
The overriding quality of much fresh paddlefish is that of firmness. This fish eats and cuts in a manner reminiscent of pork loin, with extraordinarily dense texture. In a hot oven, a 45-minute roast will yield something more akin to a four-legged, oinking, curly-tailed animal than a fish. This robust quality of mature paddlefish lends tremendous versatility to the chef, as one can use paddlefish in everything from deep fried fish-and-chips to a Chinese twice-cooked pork-style stir fry, to a bacon wrapped roast loin of paddlefish. The smoked fish can be profound. The manner of preparation matters greatly, as the style can range from pungently smoked and salty to delicate in flavor and texture. Chefs have successfully made a wonderful unsmoked cured gravlax-style paddleffish, as well as hot-smoked preparations which, amazingly, resemble nothing so much as deli-style smoked ham.
Perhaps the most important chapter of the paddlefish’s history is still being written. North America is a continent once filled with one of the richest fauna of any place in history. Today most every large American animal species, from the bison and bears of Montana, to the condors and cougars of California, is a shadow of its former self, mostly eradicated from its native range. Yet there is one good-sized wild species clinging to its original habitat, still swimming the waters it has known for a long, long time. In the Ohio, the Mississippi and Missouri, the Licking and Scioto and the two Miami’s and the Illinois and Yellowstone and the Kentucky and many more rivers than that, one will still find, however sparsely, the American Paddlefish, the big one that got away from the settlement and “civilizing” of America by Europeans. To see these magnificent fish protected in the wild, but farmed in astonishing sustainability, would greatly help to safeguard their survival.