It's often difficult to find reasonably priced wild salmon at restaurants or local grocery stores in America. Farming salmon is a big industry, and when salmon raised in pens tastes comparable and costs far less than wild salmon, why bother seeking out the good stuff?
Verlasso®, a salmon farming company based in Patagonia, Chile, thinks that the current model of salmon farming is not sustainable, and it seeks to revamp the industry and create a better product in the process. For its efforts, Verlasso was recently named a good alternative to wild salmon by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch® program, which seeks to raise consumer awareness about sustainable seafood.
I spoke with the director of Verlasso®, Scott Nichols, about the company, the importance of sustainable salmon farming practices and what's next for the company. Then I did a taste test.
"I think what this rating means is an external validation of our core founding principles," Nichols says. "We were founded with the thought that the current "fish in, fish out" ratio was an existential problem. Four pounds of feeder fish to raise one pound of salmon was unsustainable."
The "fish in, fish out" ratio refers to how many fish it takes to feed one salmon. The ratio in traditional salmon farming is 4:1 because most farmers render fish oil from feeder fish to feed salmon, and those babies need a lot of fish oil to thrive. In the wild, they eat naturally oily fish like anchovies, which are high in omega-3s, but on farms, salmon are fed a combination of oil from many different kinds of fish. According to Verlasso®, it's no longer sustainable to the general fish population to feed farmed salmon.
"In 2006, the annual growth rate for salmon worldwide was approaching double digits," Nichols explains. "At the time, salmon consumed about 80 percent of the world's fish oil. The fish oil supply is flat and can't go up. That gave me the idea that there must be something done, or we won't have salmon in the future."
Verlasso® feeds its salmon a mixture of yeast that is genetically modified to produce omega-3s, which cuts the fish in, fish out ratio to 1:1. The farm also uses less water than traditional flow-through systems, and antibiotics are only used if a fish becomes sick, rather than as a preventative measure. What does all this mean for the salmon?
"Wild salmon, depending on where they're caught, have a difference in fat content, but it's usually somewhere around 8 percent," explains Nichols. "The fat content of farmed salmon is 17 to 22 percent. Our fat content is 11 percent. In our salmon, very much like wild salmon, the flavor profile resides in the meat, not the fat."
Nichols says that because of Verlasso's® farming practices, the salmon has a crisp, clean, bright flavor profile, unlike the slightly metallic taste of some farmed salmon. He's clearly very passionate about salmon, and when I spoke to him about his company, he suggested I do a taste test to see for ourselves how Verlasso® stacks up. Like anyone needs an excuse to enjoy salmon.
I went to Central Market (currently the only local grocer who carries Verlasso®) and bought a piece of farmed salmon from some random farm, a piece of Verlasso® salmon and a piece of wild salmon. Then I took them home, sprinkled a little olive oil on top and baked them in the oven until they were juicy and bubbling.
I knew which piece of salmon was which, but my parents did not, and they agreed to be my blind taste testers. I immediately had a clear favorite, as did my mother, but my father was uncertain. Eventually, he admitted that the wild was his favorite, the normal farm raised his second favorite and the Verlasso® his least favorite. My mother liked the wild best as well, but she said Verlasso® was a close second. I liked the Verlasso® best, but admittedly, I knew which one it was, and I had just been reading about how wonderful it is.
The wild salmon definitely has the strongest, most salmon-y flavor, and it's the darkest pink in color. The regular farmed salmon tasted farmed to me. If someone had presented it to me and told me it was wild, I still would have known it was farmed. The Verlasso® was interesting because it had the mildest flavor of the three. It wasn't overly fishy, but it also didn't have a strong enough salmon taste to completely satisfy us. What we all agreed on though is that Verlasso® has by far the best texture. It's rich and buttery and practically melts in your mouth. That seems odd considering Verlasso® has less fat than traditional farmed salmon, but there was no denying that the texture was better than even the wild salmon.
So would I buy it again? Probably.
The wild salmon was a good $7 more a pound ($19.99 per pound as opposed to $12.99 per pound of Verlasso®), and though the taste was better, I'm not sure that it was $7 better. I still like the idea of purchasing salmon that grew up happy and free away from antibiotics and tanks, but for farmed salmon, Verlasso® ain't too shabby.
In addition to being sold at Central Market, Houstonians can try Verlasso® at the Omni Houston Hotel's NOÉ Grill and Arturo's Uptown Italiano. If you get the chance to try it, let us know what you think.