September 4, 2013

Harbor Fish Market: A whopper of a story

Portland's monument to fishmongering, a 47-year-old family business, has had a remarkable life.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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Alice Hamilton of Scarborough, a regular, exits the Harbor Fish Market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Bie Wu of Portland studies her options at the market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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"Now, no one else anywhere in this country probably sold tuna," Nick said. "No one knew what tuna was."

The market ended up selling about 400 tuna steaks from one of the fish. The price? Three pounds for a dollar. In today's market, because the bluefin tuna population has been so depleted, that one fish probably would have gone for at least $15,000.

"You don't want to know what we sold the toro for -- the fatty toro, which today would be worth a fortune," Mike Alfiero said. "We were selling it for, like, 59 cents a pound or something."

What happened to the other fish? They had to throw it away, and it became chicken feed.

When he hears a groan, Nick adds, "I know. But to sell 400 pounds of tuna steaks in Portland in those days was a huge accomplishment, even at 3 pounds for a buck." 

TASTES, AND TIMES, HAVE CHANGED

The Alfieros have seen many trends come and go, in both public tastes and in what restaurants want to put on the plate.

"In the early days it was a few species," Nick said. "It was haddock, lobsters, clams, lobster meat, a few basic things at that time. There might have been Atlantic salmon at a certain time of year -- there was no farm-raised salmon -- so the consumer, when they came into the store, really only had 10 or 12 choices. So we started searching out other things, outside of the local area, to bring in."

Restaurants started asking for fish from Florida or the West Coast, and for more exotic things, like flying fish from Tasmania.

"From a restaurant's perspective, they are constantly searching for new ideas -- a new trend to follow or create," Mike Alfiero said. "The public sort of follows that, and the public in the Portland area certainly has become more knowledgeable around the different foods and cuisines, seeking a little variety. But we've been responsible for a lot of that, too. I feel like our operation here, we were way ahead of the curve. We were marketing fresh squid and mussels and all of the things that have become popular, and we were doing it years ago."

"That was our calling card with a lot of restaurants in the very beginning," he said. "We were doing things that our competitors were not."

Mike remembers buying wild-harvested mussels from Chebeague Island back in the mid- to late-1970s.

"They were big, barnacles still on them, and they were beautiful," he said. "And people were like, 'Wow, geez, mussels? We don't eat mussels.' But little by little, we developed a following of people who wanted to eat them. Now you look at the mussel industry, and they're in every restaurant. It's become almost like a commodity."

Today, the emphasis on local foods has refocused restaurants' interest in things like Maine oysters, which Mike Alfiero said is today's version of the mussel. Harbor Fish now brings in an average of 20 varieties of Maine oysters a week.

What's the next big thing in local seafood? The brothers say it is alternatives to cod, haddock and other whitefish: hake, cusk and pollock. Some restaurants have already started serving hake and pollock, thanks to the high price of cod and haddock.

"All the big-name restaurants are doing it, but the public still isn't buying it in quantity," Nick said. "They're still coming in after the haddock and the cod, which is fine, but we're selling more hake and pollock than we ever have."

Char is another tasty fish that restaurants are serving but the public isn't yet buying. But Portlanders are making up for it in other ways.

(Continued on page 4)

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Additional Photos

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Kathleen and Nick Alfiero with the family's first cookbook.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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One of the large coolers displaying fresh seafood on the floor of Harbor Fish Market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The brothers Alfiero - Mike, Ben and Nick - stroll the waterfront.

Courtesy photo

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Steve Ponichtera of Gladstone, N.J., watches as retail clerk Luke Parker fills a bag with steamers. Ponichtera said he makes frequent trips to Maine to attend antique auctions and rarely goes home without a selection of seafood from Harbor Fish Market.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Retail clerk Jessica Spear checks the condition of lobsters in the holding tanks, a process that is repeated each morning and occasionally throughout the day.

Retail clerk Jessica Spear checks the condition of lobsters in the holding tanks, a process that is repeated each morning and occasionally throughout the day.

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FISH TACOS

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COD LOIN BAKED IN PARCHMENT PAPER

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LOBSTER SHORTCAKE

 


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