Friday, July 19, 2024

From the Magazine: Fresh Catch

We have it all. We know this. A region bubbling over with different cultures and cuisines, languages, music, holidays. But sometimes we take for granted the undercurrent of natural bounty native to South Florida which, aside from farms and fruit and cattle, is seafood. Fish. Crustaceans. Between the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf on the other, and the tropical Keys curving southwest into Florida Bay and points beyond, South Florida has long been known as a sportsmen’s paradise, and a seafood diner’s delight.

Within 20 minutes of my desk in Boca Raton are at least four fresh fish markets, not to mention the larger groceries and specialty markets that sell fish and seafood. On any given day, you can buy a pound of Key West pinks or fresh yellowtail, or pumpkin swordfish, if you’re lucky.

These markets will steam a lobster for you, or sell you fancy olive oil and homemade smoked fish dip; one we know even has regular deliveries of fresh produce from Belle Glade if you’re in the mood for one-stop shopping.

We talked to a couple of market owners to see what they do, and what we’re buying, as well as the challenges they face and the pride they have in harvesting our local waters to bring us a fresh catch—whenever we want it.

Captain Clay S. Brand, 65, a Florida native and U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain, is synonymous with fishing (and catching) in Delray; he and his sons run Captain Clay and Sons Seafood Market. He’s been fishing these waters, from the Dry Tortugas and the Marquesas to the Bahamas and Cape Canaveral, for more than 40-some years with a “tight group of fishermen” who used to sell their catches to local markets. When Brand and his wife decided to open their own market in Delray in 2006, he told his buddies, “This is where you bring your fish now—and that’s why we have the freshest fish,” he says.

Captain Clay Brand

Brand often goes out fishing and spearfishing himself—leaving at 2 in the morning towing his 25-foot Mako with twin 135s to Sebastian and Cape Canaveral, where he’ll be on the reef by dawn, and fish all day, getting home at 10 that night. “It’s a long day, but I have a lot of spots and GPS numbers I go to,” he says.

In fact, the proliferation of GPS has changed fishing; more garden-variety fishermen are able to access their proven (and flagged) fishing spots within 10 or 15 feet, so “you have to work a little harder to get the same number of fish. There are a lot more fishermen fishing on the spot. You gotta move more.”

Another change in fishing is the strict limits on certain species every year, to prevent overfishing. Clay thinks that’s a good thing (except when it comes to sharks, but more on that later), because “if you catch the last fish, the fishery is going to shut down. … The reason we have all kinds of fresh fish is this kind of [conservation.]”

Clay worked directly with state of Florida conservation agencies in the early 2000s, gathering data through his work like weight and grouper reproductive organs/gonads to determine breeding times for that species.

“They determined that they come in but they don’t start breeding until April-May—that’s when the eggs are loose. But if you start fishing for them then, you might have 200 female groupers and two males—the males are the biggest and the most aggressive. When you start fishing for them, you get rid of the males right off the bat, and you have all these females unable to breed. The data that I and other people provided helped them realize that we have to shut [the fishery] down in January when they first start coming down so that you don’t get rid of the males.”

Clay does not feel the same way about the current shark protection guidelines.

“I used to go right out here and anchor up where all the yellowtail hang out, chum up the water and just start pulling up yellowtail one after the other, but now in the last 10 years they’ve been protecting the sharks because over in Asia they’ve been overfishing them. We decided to protect them here, so the worldwide population would not go down. We’ve got more here than we’ve ever had since the beginning of time. … So now, as soon as you catch one or two yellowtail snappers, the sharks get there, eating them up. I think sometimes our conservation methods work very well, and other times they go overboard. I think the save-the-shark deal is one of those. We need to fix that.”

But Brand isn’t complaining; he knows he’s in fishing heaven, despite South Florida’s growing marine community and seasonal restrictions. In fact, there’s nowhere in the country where the fishing is better.

“South Florida has a much larger variety [than the Northeast],” he says. “Up there they have cod, haddock, flounder. … They don’t have the whole range of good eating fish we have: wahoo, mahi, cobia, swordfish, hogfish. And all the kinds of snapper—vermillion, mutton, mango snapper, queen snapper, yellow-eye snapper, blackfin snapper.”

Stone crab claws

As for the quality controversy, he says it’s a myth that we don’t have cold-water fish (which have a higher fat content and are therefore thought to be tastier). “People think we don’t have cold-water fish because of the weather in the summertime, but I pull a fish out of the [deep] cold water on one of my electric reels, and when you are gutting it, it feels like you are sticking your hand in ice cubes, because the water here, even in summer, is very cold down there. When you fish the deep water for the golden tilefish, the snowy grouper, the yellowedge grouper, the mystic grouper, these deeper water fish are always excellent.”

And Brand has the customers to prove it. The byword for Captain Clay’s market locally is its freshness. “When it comes out of the water and goes through the back door, we put it on the board—often the same day,” he says simply.

The “board” is a whiteboard, scribbled in magic marker, which lists local fish that day, and in another column, the non-local ones for sale. The small market (which has a booth at the Delray Beach GreenMarket every Saturday) has a loyal following and a reputation for quality; it recently moved from its cramped Fourth Street storefront to 1319 N. Federal Highway, nine blocks up the road.

Another market with a decidedly different vibe is the chic Luff’s Fish Market on Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton, owned and run by Arturo Gismondi, best known for his mini fine-dining empire comprised of Trattoria Romana, La Nouvelle Maison, Luff’s Fish House and Biergarten. For Gismondi, the market is a perfect complement to his restaurants. He can order in greater volume, he can cherry-pick the fish he wants to serve in his restaurants, and he can also showcase selected signature restaurant dishes in the expansive refrigerated shelves along one wall.

Arturuo Gismondi

But why? Why would the busiest man in Boca’s restaurant business decide to add a fish market to his portfolio? “I just saw the synergy,” Gismondi says. “I found it was a good move for everything—for the customer in the area who wanted to eat at home and have a great piece of fish, and it’s great for the restaurants. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

We tried to ask how he managed to do it all, but he only said he “lives close by” and “has great people working for me.” (He also said he’s thinking of opening a catering company in the future, but that’s another story.)

The spacious market is an ode to having it all, as we said at the outset. Banks of snowy ice cradle mussels, clams, three kinds of shrimp and stone crabs; in one corner is an array of prepared dishes, including ceviche, octopus salad, hearts of palm salad, house smoked salmon, salmon burgers. There is mahi and snapper and grouper and more, and an enormous lobster tank bubbling at one end, full of heavy dark shapes lumbering along the bottom.

Luff’s Fish Market

Gismondi opened the market in 2020, and he says he’s been pleased with its success so far, but the biggest challenge is that “people in East Boca don’t cook all that much.”

In that case, he carries prepared foods—the most popular foods from his restaurants—that people can heat up, including vodka and fra diavolo sauces, dips, salads, caviar, pâté, homemade bread—even desserts.

“We have all the specialty products, the ratatouille, the langoustine and French bread from La Nouvelle. The Key lime pie and fish dip from Luff’s. The eggplant pie and stuffed meatball and gnocchi from Trattoria. … If anything, we want to pursue even more of the prepared items. … And, we have the best desserts here,” he says. “Who would have thought to buy a dessert at the fish market? But our pastry chef at the French restaurant does all the desserts…”

Luff’s Fish Market

Gismondi’s restaurants, plus the market, allow him to buy a higher volume of fish, and over the years he has built up a strong relationship with quality vendors.

“We are very fortunate that we have a great local supplier. The fish that comes in here is amazing. We also have relationships with fisheries in the Northeast so we can buy in bulk for the restaurants and also bring it to the fish market. … Originally, I just wanted to do South Florida, but we have a lot of customers from the Northeast. It’s a good way of showing them the freshness that we have.”

Gismondi says, “The most beautiful thing is that everything on display here can go right to the restaurants. Tomorrow we start all new again; other fish markets don’t have that ability.”

As you’d expect with a clientele heavily from the Northeast, Gismondi says his most popular fish is salmon.

“We get it from the Faroe Islands—there’s no bloodlines and no belly meat—it’s all prime. You are dealing with prime cuts; that’s why you are paying a little extra, too. It’s all fresh. That was the goal, and I’ve reached it too. Just give me the freshness. Fish is very perishable, and you also have to watch when you get it in as well. You have to make sure it wasn’t mishandled when you get it in; that’s very important—fortunately through the years we’ve had great purveyors.”

Luff’s Fish Market

As for his own favorites, Gismondi likes our own local yellowtail, although he also says you can’t beat a steamed Maine lobster. He is also smitten with soft-shell crabs, which he gets from a North Florida/Georgia coast supplier. And, as was true with Captain Clay Brand, Gismondi said an excellent—but relatively under-appreciated—fish is the golden tilefish, which is sold at both markets.

People tend to stick with what they know, Gismondi says, although his onsite Chef Anthony is available to tell any of his customers exactly how to cook any fish they buy.

“Every fish is different, and the fresher a fish, the quicker it cooks. There was a time,” he says, “when beef needed to be rare and fish needed to be well done, but you get different flavors of fish cooking at different temperatures, especially fresh fish. It makes a big difference.”

Gismondi likes to fish, although he doesn’t claim to be a fisherman. And he loves the Keys. Just as Captain Clay sees it, he thinks people living here are lucky to have the kind of connection we have to the sea—and its seafood.

“We have the Gulf Stream,” he says. “You have the Bahamas and the Keys. We have a great fishing area, and it’s 12 months out of the year. The weather is appropriate for it. I remember growing up in New York and we’d go fishing for six months; the other six months, the boat was in the shop. Also, the inlets are so close by, you are right out in the water. In New York you’d have to travel an hour or 45 minutes to just get to the marina. We’re kind of spoiled that way. South Florida is very unique and very inviting.”

This article is from the March 2023 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Marie Speed
Marie Speed
Marie Speed is group editor of all JES publications, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Worth Avenue, Mizner’s Dream and the annual publication for the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees editorial operations of the company’s Salt Lake City magazines. Her community involvement has ranged from work with the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce to a longtime board member position at Caridad Center. She is also on the George Snow Scholarship Fund review committee. She is a past officer of the Florida Magazine Association and a member of Class XVII of Leadership Florida. In her spare time, Marie enjoys South Florida’s natural world through hiking and kayaking, and she is an avid reader and an enthusiastic cook.

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