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Friday, January 30, 2009

Industry comes out of shell at Sip n' Shuck

Government launches Catch, a new festival to salvage local seafood. But is it too little, too late?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 30, 2009 at 1:32 PM

This year's Sip n' Shuck at the Delta Halifax featured a celebrity shucking competition. Well...maybe celebrity pushes the envelope. Notable shuckers included Tory ministers Chris d'Entremont and Ron Chisholm (who won first and second place) and councillor Dawn Sloane.

It was Sloane's first time shucking an oyster. She struggled a little onstage with the uncooperative molluscs and finished last. "Well, [Chisholm and d'Entremont] are from rural areas, they know how to do this," she told me later, "I'm from the city, where we just eat them!"

At $35 a ticket, the event was attended largely by food industry people who sipped while the province shilled its latest venture to promote our fisheries: Catch, a seafood festival in June at the Cunard Centre. I spoke to Chisholm, whose Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture are organizing Catch.

This event is part of the Conservative government's response to the near collapse of the lobster fishery. Chisholm admitted they got involved late in marketing or promoting our seafood products; "For too long we were dependent on the US market. We took it for granted and we were complacent. When the dollar was at par with the US dollar we had an inkling of what might happen if we got into trouble."

And then trouble hit. But what can a province do when it's just a little cog in a global industry and 85-90% of its product goes to export markets? "It's difficult to do anything," Chisholm said. "Marketing and promotion are about the only things we can do."

He was quick to point out his department's whistle-stop promotional tour of the Western provinces before Christmas upped lobster sales in Albertan Sobey's by 400%. "It was the biggest seafood promotion in Canadian history," he boasted. Still, while they were out West, lobstermen set up a pretty successful (and desperate) ad hoc holiday sales drive in mall parking lots across the province. I guess we'll see what Catch does for local business this summer.

The real star of the night were littleneck clams. They are not native to Nova Scotia and they're rarely seen here in Halifax, but they are farmed by Innovative Fishery Products in Belliveau Cove. They are ridiculously delicious. The shucker told me it's 10-15 times harder to chuck than an oyster (how do you measure that?) because their lids interlock. They also seals in those delicious juices. An intense dose of salt water and the taste of fresh raw clam which is ten times better than a fried one. Too bad 90% of them are shipped to the USA. Marc Blinn, one of the owners, said that Fid was the only restaurant in the HRM he knew of who bought from them, but added they'd do big or small orders for anyone.

While I'm on the food and drink tip, all the vinyards and microbrewers had tables providing samples. The bottling labels of Tideview cider from Greenwich are nicely redesigned (they needed it); their semi-dry cider is still tasty as ever. Sean Doucet, executive chef at the Delta, cooked up deep fried oysters in a po'boy with slaw and some oyster fritters with ponzu sauce and Acadian Seaplants hana-nori seaweed. There were plenty of shucked oysters. I spotted one tired shucker who said he'd opened about 800 oysters. He looked lke he was about to pass out — proving there is a local appetite for local food in the city.

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