Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Savoring Seabass? Try Tasting Toothfish...

One of my fondest travel memories dates from the early 1980s at Santiago’s Mercado Central (above), where a penguin—probably a Humboldt, but perhaps a Magellanic—roamed among fishmongers who fed him scraps at a site where Texas food writer Robb Walsh found “a display of fishes and shellfish so vast and unfamiliar that I felt I was observing the marine life of another planet.”
That penguin’s no longer around—nowadays, at least, we prefer to see our penguins in the wild—but that seafood cornucopia still survives here. There are caveats, though, as the sustainability has become an issue commercial fishing has expanded in the southern seas.
One key resource is the so-called “Chilean sea bass,” with its firm but buttery flesh, which has had a high-profile presence on the international market since the 1990s. In parts of the southern oceans, this species of codfish – known to fisheries specialists by the rather less marketable name of “Patagonian toothfish” – has suffered from rampant overfishing in the waters bordering Patagonia and Antarctica. It’s worth noting that California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains a Seafood Watch Program that evaluates individual species according to the environmental impact of specific fisheries, and ranks them in terms of “best,” “good,” and “avoid.”
Recently, when I visited the Falkland Islands, I found toothfish on menus in the capital of Stanley (above top) and in the lodge at outlying Bleaker Island (immediately below), where I spent two nights. Fortunately, the Aquarium ranks the Falklands toothfish in the “best” category, and Waterfront Kitchen Café owner Alex Olmedo even showed me a new toothfish cookbook, sponsored by the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators, on display there.
By contrast, the Aquarium ranks Chile’s own “seabass” fishery poorly in terms of management and bycatch issues, and recommends avoiding it. In a brief visit to the Mercado, I could not locate any mero—as it’s sometimes called here—though it’s possibly being sold surreptitiously.

Oddly, however, the Argentine toothfish catch goes unmentioned in Seafood Watch. In California, my home supermarket Berkeley Bowl sells “Chilean seabass (product of Argentina)” at nearly US$30 per pound (roughly US$66 per kg). I’m generally confident they follow ethical purchasing policies, but the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Engagement Coordinator, Peter Adames, acknowledged that they have no information on the Argentine toothfish catch (and he was unaware that Berkeley Bowl sold it). He did add that “I'll check with our science team to see if there is an assessment in the works or on the horizon.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

In Insular Patagonia

When it’s winter in the north, the days get shorter, and the weather gets rougher, it’s common to dream of island getaways. For many Northern Hemisphere residents, that might involve a hop to the Caribbean, but I prefer the southernmost region of the Americas. Two of South America’s biggest islands – Chiloé and Tierra del Fuego (pictured above) – arouse my own enthusiasm but, after spending a couple nights in Santiago recently, I chose to bypass the rest of the continent to spend a week in the Falkland Islands (whose tiny capital of Stanley appears in the photo below).
Air travel can be tiring, and the five-hour time difference with California didn’t help, but I arrived in the Islands by mid-afternoon on a Saturday. Staying with friends – I spent a year in the Islands three decades ago – I later enjoyed dinner with them at Waterfront Kitchen Café, where Chilean chef Alex Olmedo oversees a notably sophisticated menu. As an appetizer, the South Georgia reindeer paté deserves a story in itself, but I also chose the chimichurri-marinated local lamb rack for my main dish.
Over the next two days, I did a variety of town activities, including a visit to the professionally transformed Historic Dockyard Museum complex (pictured above), but Tuesday and Wednesday were special – I got to fly my favorite airline, the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS), to the offshore wildlife paradises of Sea Lion Island and Bleaker Island. I always enjoy the aerial views from their ten-seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, and I also enjoy the fact that there’s no oppressive airport security – no full body scans and feel free to take water on on-board - unless you count the fact that FIGAS weighs its passengers to be able to balance the load.
I made only a brief day visit to Sea Lion, a compact island with a modern lodge and easy access to wildlife sites that include three species of penguins and my personal favorite elephant seals. There are also orcas offshore, but none were around on this day. In the afternoon, I flew to nearby Bleaker, where wool ranchers Mike and Phyllis Rendell also encourage wildlife-oriented visitors to stay at their renovated Cobb’s Cottage and the newer Cassard House, which has four spacious bedrooms and full-board service. On a quick Land Rover tour around the island’s north end, we saw hundreds of Gentoo penguins and king cormorants, but also a solitary fur seal who had hauled himself ashore at a site where such sightings are infrequent (wool and wildlife appear to be compatible!).

At present, there’s only one flight weekly between Punta Arenas and the Islands – I’d have like to stay at least another few days - but, once you get back to the continent, you can tour Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paine, and other thrillingly remote destinations. I’ve done that many times myself, but to me it’s also special to lodge on small offshore islands like Sea Lion and Bleaker, where you can explore the penguin-rich seashore and marine mammal colonies with just a handful of other guests around – and often you’re the only one of your kind.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

After the Apocalypse

From the late 1970s, when I first visited southernmost South America, both Argentina and Chile were under the boots of murderous military dictatorships. As a foreigner, with a US passport, I had the privilege of leaving at any time, though that did not prevent some anxious moments, especially in Argentina. I never experienced the 1973 coup by Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet – the photo above depicts an Atacama desert memorial to victims of the coup’s “Caravan of Death” in the Atacama desert - nor the 1976 takeover by Argentina’s “Proceso” junta (the photograph below is part of the Parque de la Memoria in the Buenos Aires barrio of Núñez).
Many of my Argentine and Chilean friends did, and I was quick to sympathize with them, but sympathy and genuine empathy are different matters. Even after I married an Argentine, and heard her tales of life under tyranny, I never felt those sorts of emotion until last Tuesday, when the unspeakable Donald Trump – a disgracefully corrupt racist and misogynist authoritarian - became president-elect of my own country. Even though Trump’s Republican campaign may have broken no rules – except perhaps those of poor taste – it felt like a coup.

Part of the Republican strategy, but not all of it, was to limit voting by disenfranchising potential Democratic voters – in Wisconsin, for instance, the Republican legislature passed a restrictive voter ID law that probably gave the state to Trump. In other states, Republican administrations reduced the number of polling places and voting hours to make it harder for their opponents to participate in the election.

Before leaving for Santiago, where I arrived Thursday morning, I wrote my friend Marializ Maldonado about these demoralizing developments. Marializ, now a journalist, was a university student when I met her, and her brother Víctor – expelled from the Universidad de Chile for his political activity – now works in crisis management at Chile’s Interior Ministry. I recall that, not long after I met them, we went to a small clandestine labor union retreat near the beach town of Los Vilos, and issues of how to deal with life under dictatorship were part of the discussion. I also heard a wealth of Pinochet jokes, which I won’t go into at present.

Marializ’s response to Trump’s victory was immediate support – “It’s macabre... Now we have to show solidarity with you the way you did to us for so many years.” When I sent her a copy of the California legislative leadership’s response to the events – a statement on protecting immigrants and minorities threatened by the incoming president and his lackeys – she found it “Inspiring! That’s the right attitude.”

My Argentine wife and her brother especially suffered far more under the Argentine dictatorship – his first wife disappeared shortly after giving birth to a son, and only recently did they locate her remains. That said, Pinochet and the Argentine junta lacked the immense capacity for outright destruction – especially internationally – that Trump does.

So, you look for bright spots, and I encountered one Wednesday morning at Oakland International Airport as I went to board a short flight to Los Angeles. As I went through security and greeted the TSA agent – a middle-aged black woman - with the cheeriest “good morning” I could muster, she replied by asking me how I was. When I responded that I hadn’t slept much the previous night, she said hadn’t been able to either. When I suggested it was probably for the same reason, she responded with a big hug – rather than a frisk - that lifted my spirits.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

SSAD (Seasonal Sports Affective Disorder)

For more than a quarter century now, I’ve been writing and updating guidebooks on southernmost South America for several different publishers. In general, most of my work takes place from autumn (the austral spring) to the northern spring (austral autumn), so I’ve often joked that I leave California after the World Series and return in time for Opening Day. It’s not such a joke, though, that as the days shorten and the baseball draws to an end, seasonal affective disorder becomes an overlapping issue (with “sports affective disorder,” as baseball is the only spectator sport I find worthwhile).
Fortunately the longer days, filled with work, help me get through the winter - unlike the late Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby who famously said that "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."

Generally, I consider South America a sports desert, but there was a South American link to the end of the baseball season, though it didn’t turn quite as I had hoped. Last year, reserve outfielder Paulo Orlando became the first Brazilian ever to play on a World Series, as his Kansas City Royals defeated the New York Mets in five games (for non-baseball fans, I’ll state here that the first team to win four games out of a maximum seven becomes the champion). This year, reserve catcher Yan Gomes could have become the second player to do so, but his Cleveland Indians lost Game Seven in extra innings to the Chicago Cubs (Gomes began the season as Cleveland’s starting catcher, but a separated shoulder forced him onto the disabled list for an extended time).
Anyway, that’s enough baseball for a while, as I fly south to Santiago de Chile this coming Wednesday. I’ve seen baseball fields in Santiago, in northernmost Chile’s Atacama Desert (pictured at top), in the subtropical heights of Argentina’s Salta province (pictured above), in Buenos Aires (where I’ve played recreational baseball and softball), and even in steamy Paraguay (pictured below). I recently learned that there is baseball in Chile’s southerly university city of Concepción and also in the more southerly agricultural city of Los Ángeles (37° 28’ S latitude), whose team nickname is not the Dodgers but rather the Pumas.
It had never occurred to me to try to locate the world’s southernmost baseball diamond, but I’m guessing it might be in Christchurch, New Zealand (latitude 43° 33’ S). I’ll be asking, this time, as I drive south from Santiago, in hopes of finding one nearer the South Pole, on either the Chilean or Argentine side.

Before then, though, I’ll be flying farther south to Punta Arenas and then to the Falkland Islands, where I have seen locals with cricket bats. There, in the capital of Stanley, I once played catch with crewmen from a Japanese fishing vessel who were stunned that somebody in the Islands could throw them a curveball. I don’t expect that to happen again, but the memory will serve until I return home in February, when the days get longer and spring training starts. Pitchers and catchers report on February 13th.
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