A Fish Tale: Sustainable Seafood in the Valley
By Samantha Marsh
Photographs by Dominic Perri, additional photographs by Mary Reilly
Wes Malzone’s days begin long before the sun comes up. No, he is not a baker or an on-call doctor. He is a man on a mission—a mission to bring fresh, sustainably sourced seafood to Western Massachusetts. Even if that means driving to the Massachusetts coast three (very early) mornings each week.
Wes, the founder of BerkShore Native Seafood—a curator of native, seasonal, sustainable, and premium seafood, wakes up at 4am and starts his day with a two-hour drive to Boston. He visits his preferred group of fishmongers and personally makes his selections. Wes then makes the trek back to the hills of the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires, where he delivers his treasures (the very same day) to the landlocked and seafood-deprived masses.
Wes started BerkShore as a way to reintroduce the people of Western Massachusetts to our native coastal fish. He acts as a liaison between the fisherman and the consumer by the daily selection of seafood “based on freshness, harvest method, and harvest location.”
“A lot of people are really in the dark when it comes to fish,” Wes says. He goes on to explain that authors like Michael Pollan have done a great job bringing awareness to the industrial meat industry, but that education has yet to spread to the seafood industry. When it comes to buying meat, people are generally educated and free to make choices on what they are purchasing based on their knowledge of where that meat is sourced, its quality, and how it was raised. Fish, on the other hand, is still mysterious to many.
“People talk themselves into believing that fish is going to be fresh,” Wes says. The truth is, while it may be easy to think a fish is a fish is a fish, that most certainly is not the case. “People have lost touch with local and seasonal fish,” says Wes. He is doing his best to reconnect the people of Western Massachusetts with good-quality seafood and take the mystery out of fish once and for all.
Wes grew up in Scituate, Massachusetts, home to some of the freshest seafood on the East Coast, and has maintained his friendships with many of Scituate’s fishermen. A graduate of the University of Vermont’s environmental studies program, Wes worked for 10 years in corporate sales before realizing that he wanted to pursue a career that he was passionate about.
He had always been interested in food (“I’m Italian, food was a huge part of my upbringing”), but he never had any interest in being a chef. It wasn’t until Wes spent time living in San Francisco that he discovered food as a business.
“It was the first time I had ever heard of ‘locally grown,’” Wes recalls. After stints in San Francisco, Miami and Washington, DC, Wes moved to Western Massachusetts, where he saw that the supply of freshly caught fish was severely lacking. Curious about where local chefs were finding their seafood, he began to knock on the back doors of restaurants and ask if they would be interested in deliveries of fresh Massachusetts seafood.
“More people said yes than no,” Wes says. And that was that—in May 2011, BerkShore was born.
When asked about the biggest challenge his business faces, Wes replies that his biggest challenge isn’t actually a challenge at all, but an opportunity.
“The biggest opportunity is to reintroduce chefs and the public to the texture, seasonal availability, and varying prices of fresh fish.” Most people are not used to the unique flavors of fresh fish. This is largely because the majority of the fish displayed in supermarket cases has been frozen, thawed, shipped from hundreds (or thousands) of miles away, and has consequently been stripped of most of its flavor.
Fish from BerkShore, Wes says, is “harvested yesterday, cut this morning, in your kitchen this afternoon.” It’s fish that tastes, well, like fish. And that is definitely a good thing.
“I want to talk about fish,” Wes says of his conversations with both customers and fishermen.
His first goal is to find out who his customer is, what they are looking for, and then will go to the source to find the freshest, best-quality fish he can. While price is certainly a topic on everyone’s mind, that is not what BerkShore is about.
“Price depends on supply and demand,” Wes explains. There is no way of knowing how much something is going to be one day versus the next. It all depends on what the fishermen bring in off their boats. Some days they will have a lot of a particular fish, and it will be cheap, and other days it will be more expensive. “I’m mainly concerned with quality, not price.”
BerkShore customers have tasted and seen firsthand the quality in fresh, seasonal seafood.
“My customers are constantly saying ‘I didn’t know ‘x’ could taste like that!’”. On a recent Tuesday at the Northampton market, local resident Theresa Carter bought a pound of Pollock. She has been buying from BerkShore for two years and says that before Wes “I wasn’t sure about what to buy, whether it was sustainable and fresh. I know what I’m getting now.” That day’s purchase was destined for fish tacos, which she says even her young son likes to eat.
After three years in business, Wes’s reputation as a stickler for quality has resulted in him getting the best seafood on the dock. Recently, when Wes asked one of the partners on the fish pier about a recent catch, the purveyor went on to say “Well, I have this swordfish … but it’s not for you”—that particular fish was not of the quality that BerkShore demands.
Wes works hard to cultivate his relationships with his customers and the fishermen that he sources his fish from. “The value is in the relationship,” Wes says. Executive Chef and Owner, Daniel Martinez of Bistro les Gras in Northampton has tried a few different species in his restaurant thanks to BerkShore: “Customers will always surprise you! Sometimes we put a "non-traditional" fish on and it will sell quickly and other times I have to revamp the dish a bit to make it more "comfortable". If I am concerned about it, I'll lure them in with a preparation or accompaniment that has been successful in the past with a different fish or meat. We definitely gave fun playing the ‘will it sell?’ game, win or lose.”
One of Wes’s goals is to promote the lesser-known species of seafood. Selling less-familiar types of fish is important to sustaining the fish industry in general, as it focuses on eating what is in season and what is available, versus farming fish for a particular demand or increasing the amount of bycatch (fish or other marine species that are unintentionally caught while a boat is out fishing for a particular fish). These lesser-known species are also almost always just as good as, if not better than, the more familiar types of fish. Wes sells a lot of hake and pollock (light, flaky, white fish that can be used in place of cod) as well as red fish (ocean perch), mackerel, and other smaller fish species.
An advocate for these lesser-known species, Wes also advocates for the livelihoods of fishermen, many of whom fish for fresh Atlantic cod.
Nate Sustick, Executive Chef of Paul and Elizabeth’s in Northampton has had success with redfish. “Customers have really enjoyed [it],” he says. “Normally we run it as a blackboard lunch special, broiled with a parmesan herb crust. I most enjoy the scallops & cod, though I have to say all the products gave been five star and an honor and pleasure to eat and serve.”
“I love selling cod,” Wes says. Fresh cod is far more flavorful than the cod many of us are used to—BerkShore customers continually tell Wes “I didn’t know that cod tasted this good!” and “Supporting local fisheries is so important.” Not only does it sustain our fish, our oceans, and ourselves, but it supports so many jobs and the livelihoods of fishermen—an occupation that must be sustained.
“Fish is a complex issue,” Wes says with a sigh. While this is true, BerkShore is doing its best to bring these issues to the surface and educate diners about seafood. Where to start? By taking the “fishiness” out of fish and reconnecting with the delicious, fresh, and sustainably harvested seafood from our very own coast.
BerkShore fish is available for sale at the Tuesday Market in Northampton, the Great Barrington Farmers Market, and Mountain View Farm in Easthampton. Find them on Facebook and Instagram too.
Local restaurants serving BerkShore fish include Paul and Elizabeth’s in Northampton, 30 Boltwood in Amherst, Chez Albert in Amherst, The Lumberyard in Amherst, and The Alvah Stone in Montague.
Samantha Marsh is a writer and food enthusiast living in Amherst, Massachusetts. A graduate of the UMass Amherst Journalism and Anthropology departments, Samantha now works as a literary associate at The Lisa Ekus Group, a culinary agency in Hatfield, MA. Samantha is a lover of lemon desserts, seafood, and all types of hot sauce.