When he bought his farm in the community of Sloughhouse, Michael Passmore had no intentions of raising fish.
“If my next door neighbor had sheep, I could have gone in a totally different direction,” said Passmore, “but I happened to move next to one of the foremost fish-farming experts in the nation.”
Aquaculturist Ken Beers, owner of sustainable seafood supplier The Fishery, became Passmore’s mentor, introducing the newbie rancher to California white sturgeon and other farmable freshwater fish.
At his 86-acre Passmore Ranch, the 43-year-old Passmore now ranks among Sacramento’s most famous fish farmers. Passmore farms primarily California native fish such as white sturgeon in large tanks, filtering and reusing the same water many times. Nutrient-rich waste water irrigates vegetables grown on his ranch.
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He supplied 160 pounds of sturgeon for Sunday’s sold-out Farm-to-Fork Gala Celebration on the Tower Bridge. Chefs Oliver Ridgeway and Ravin Patel turned it into “sturgeon pastrami” with crunchy sturgeon skin chicharrones.
We caught up with Passmore before he plunged into Bridge Dinner preparations:
Q: When did you become a fish farmer?
A: We started the ranch 11 years ago; that’s not all that long when it comes to animal husbandry. It may seem long in the world of technology, but when you’re developing breeding stock, it’s very short. It’s gone by fast.
Most crops of fish we nurse 18 to 24 months. We currently raise sturgeon, black bass, striped bass, rainbow trout, silver carp and catfish. …
White sturgeon grow so well here because it’s a native fish; they swim in the Sacramento River right under the Tower Bridge. They’re very resilient fish. It’s a fish that you have a very long relationship with. There’s an absolute reason these fish have survived as long as they have; they’ve evolved over millenniums to take care of themselves.
We harvest our sturgeon for meat after three years; that’s the earliest we can (determine the sex of) the fish. Ideally, we keep an appropriate number of females for caviar. By that age, the males weigh 14 to 20 pounds.
Q: From the first Bridge Dinner, sturgeon has become the most talked about course on the menu. Is it also a restaurant menu star?
A: Chefs want it. Sturgeon sales have come on more and more, even in the last month. We’ve seen a notable surge in sales. … When we started, I thought we might sell sturgeon to five, maybe eight restaurants in Northern California. Now, we’re in 20 to 30 at any time, and growing.
A: Chefs like a lot of things about sturgeon. It’s a firm-fleshed fish with a buttery taste. It’s sustainable and local, but they really enjoy the variety of preparations they can use with it. They can do anything with sturgeon; it makes cooking exciting for them. This fish takes seasoning so well. There’s not a lot of fish you can do that with.
Q: Such as sturgeon pastrami?
A: Exactly! There was a New York Times article that declared fish would be the new “it” thing for charcuterie; this pastrami is an example.
Q: Do you have a favorite way to prepare sturgeon?
A: Three different ones jump to mind. Billy Ngo (of Kru) prepared sturgeon that was amazing; raw but with a touch of cedar (and flame) to concentrate the fat, laid over rice. Very simple, very good.
Oliver (Ridgeway of The Grange) went very traditional. He pan-seared sturgeon in butter until it developed a nice crust. Just wonderful!
I will never forget the bite I had from Chef (Christopher) Kostow at Meadowood (in St. Helena).
The key was (each bite of) the fish was wrapped in a leaf. The fish went in and out of the oven time after time. All this in-out, in-out was a way of moving molecules around much more slowly (than conventional roasting). It resulted in the most delectable, wonderful crust.
The actual flesh of the sturgeon was like fish butter, so wonderfully rich yet tender and satisfying. It was a very, very memorable bite.
Owner of Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse.
Local fish farmer raised 160 pounds of sturgeon that will featured at the 2015 Bridge Dinner.