Christopher Nicolson, of Iliamna Fish Co., was raised in a fishing community just like generations of his family before him. Fishing knowledge and connection to the local Kenai Peninsula of Bristol Bay, Alaska is part of Christopher’s heritage and his way of life. Lucky for us, Christopher is a neighbor and good friend of Heritage.
Each year when his delicious salmon becomes available we eagerly try to stockpile the ruby red filets for our customers. We just received a batch of his smoked salmon and the staff can’t help but add a little to every meal!
I had the opportunity to sit down with Christopher and chat about fishing and his favorite ways to eat smoked salmon.
CN: My name is Christopher Nicholson and I am a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska. And together my cousins and I have a little fish co-op we call Iliamna Fish Company. We fish on Bristol Bay, Alaska and we catch Sockeye Salmon.
There are 5 species of Pacific Salmon and Sockeye is the one that has the really scarlet colored flesh – they’re beautiful. My family has been fishing in that place for not just a few generations, my mother’s indigenous, we’ve literally been in that place for 1,200 years… It’s just the food source and the history of people like my family, I’m not the only one, there’s plenty of families like me, I’m so hopeful it will be there for my great, great grand kids too.
Wild Salmon hatches in cold fresh water streams. When large enough, the juveniles swim downstream and out to sea to live out their lives as adults, traveling thousands of miles from their nascent homes. Each species of salmon has a different life-cycle, but when it’s time to spawn all salmon travel back to their place of their birth – the exact stream in which they were born.
During the salmon run the river teems with fish as they climb upriver to mate. The fish dance, which is fascinating in itself, before mating, and finally dying. Their eggs are left to hatch and begin the cycle anew. Fishing happens during the salmon run, when the fish are fully mature and care has to be taken that enough fish make it upstream to mate.
CN: Bristol Bay is a special place because it is the US’s largest sustainably managed Sockeye Salmon fishery. And one of the reasons it’s so healthy is that the fishing in that bay is limited to hand-harvesting. And the kind that my family and I do is sort of the most old fashioned kind. And what we do is called set-netting. We fish on open little 20’ long skiffs. And we cast out these shallow nets by hand, and drag it in by hand, and pluck out all the fish by hand. It’s a real old fashioned, low-tech way of bringing in fish.
That really helps for two things. One, in terms of quality, I have the ability to pick all the most beautiful fish to pack for all my customers. For two, it really allows the biologist to manage the fishery to keep a really tight handle on how many fish are actually being harvested.
Lucky for us New Yorkers, Christopher is based seasonally in New York City (he’s a winemaker at the Red Hook Winery) and has personal reason to offer his family’s provisions in his seasonal home.
CN: A few years ago I made friends with three brothers, the Hurtado brothers, who run the Mt. Kisco smokehouse. They’re up in Mt. Kisco Smokehouse about an hour north of New York City. And I took some of my vacuum sealed and beautifully caught and preserved frozen fish up to them and asked if we could team up to do some curing on them. And the Hurtado brothers are wonderful. They have 30 years of experience with their curing and they have this really tiny beautiful little German kiln they work in. And they cure just with salt and sugar. So we experimented a little bit together and came up with a sockeye that we really love.
The kind that we are offering right now has a real kind of sweet buttery texture. Really melty in the mouth. And the smoke – it’s hardwood smoke we’re doing them with. It has that really kind of whiff or aroma of passing by a smokehouse.
So the way that we are doing it is what I would call traditional European cold-smoking. The fish are cured lightly with just salt and sugar. We’re not using any nitrates or nitrites. Then after that cure we’re cold smoking it at 78 degrees for 10 – 13 hours. We’re smoking it to taste.
CN: The simplest way is to have it is on black bread with a thick swath of delicious butter and just a slice of the salmon on top of it. The second way is the classic New York way – just a really well toasted bagel with, a fat smear of cream cheese and a slab of cold-smoked sockeye. And then if you want to get a little fancy with it, crispy roast some potatoes and toss like Boston lettuce and a little lemon cream dressing, put the hot crispy potatoes on the freshly tossed butter leaf salad and then a few slices of the sockeye in that. You can put a dollop of creme fraiche if you really want to be decadent about it.