Farmed hapuku a sizzling success with top seafood connoisseurs

It was a hit in Sydney: Greta Shirley shares the good news about NIWA’s latest aquaculture superstar

To satisfy the most discerning diners at the top restaurants in London, Paris, or New York requires a level of ‘wow’ factor that is difficult to achieve. Diners paying more than $30 for an entrée – and $60-plus for a main – expect taste that beats all other comparable products, and ingredients that are unique and the very best in their field. Breaking into the ‘super-premium fine dining’ sector requires a product to be at the top of its class.

Now a new premium seafood product being developed by NIWA has been judged by those in the know to have what it takes to satisfy super-premium fine diners.

After six years of research and development, NIWA is beginning to market test farmed hapuku with this sector. The research and development has been driven by market research and the high culinary expectations of the world’s best chefs to develop a farmed finfish that satisfies their palates and delivers a new, high-value aquaculture product for New Zealand.

Celebrity chef cook off

Late last year, leading Australasian chefs got together for their own taste test of the farmed hapuku. The chefs included Al Brown, co-owner of Logan Brown in Wellington, Cuisine magazine’s 2009 Restaurant of the Year. The venue was Rockpool, the award-winning Sydney restaurant of Neil Perry, prominent Australian chef, restaurateur, and television presenter.

The assembled chefs ran two tests, using their own recipes – one to review how the fish responded to different cooking methods with no other ingredients (not even salt), and the other to test it against wild-caught hapuku. The dishes they prepared included hapuku sashimi with fresh pickled ginger and soused seaweed, and pan-fried hapuku with lentils, cherry tomatoes, and olive oil.

The chefs rated the hapuku on its visual appeal, taste, uniqueness, culinary versatility, and general appeal. The farmed fish was given top marks – especially when eaten raw or pan-fried – and out-performed wild-caught hapuku.

Al Brown, an avid fisherman himself, described the farmed product as an excellent fish. “It carries true hapuku characteristics and has great texture. I would definitely use this fish.” This is high praise from an award-winning chef and author of the phenomenally successful Go Fish, which is described as the ultimate guide to sourcing and cooking seafood. (See one of Al’s recipes for hapuku.)

Steve Hodges, acclaimed seafood chef and owner of awardwinning Sydney restaurant Fishface, is a vocal critic of farmed fish and aquaculture products, but he was willing to concede. “Hats off to the guys who have farmed this fish. I think it’s the best white-fleshed farmed fish I have seen, and, as most people know, I’m not an advocate of farmed fish for various reasons.”

Marketing a sucess story

The cook-off was organised by John Susman, seafood marketing and product development consultant for Fisheads in Sydney, who was contracted by NIWA to assist in the market development of the fish. He says NIWA’s farmed hapuku has the culinary capability to match it with the best farmed finfish in the world.

“I’ve no doubt this product has the culinary credentials to target the global super-premium fine dining sector. With careful marketing of the process from hatchery to restaurant plate, we have the opportunity to deliver the piscatorial equivalent of the Central Otago pinot noir.” Market opportunities for hapuku have already been identified in Australasia, Asia, Europe, and the United States, where similar species are highly prized and, as a consequence, are overfished.

NIWA’s Commercialisation Manager, Nicholas Bain, says, “The goal was to develop a premium branded seafood product, targeting the world’s very best restaurants, cooked by the world’s very best chefs, and eaten by the world’s most discerning diners.

"Achieving this requires an integrated approach from egg to restaurant plate, with careful attention to all stages of production to ensure that a consistently top quality product arrives at the chef’s kitchen. Attention to detail every step of the way will be crucial to building a brand for hapuku that makes it a ‘must-have’ on the menu.”

Aquaculture is New Zealand’s fastest growing seafood sector, with exports of mussels, oysters, and salmon now reaching close to $300 million a year. The industry goal is to reach the billion dollar mark by 2025.

Marine caged rearing of high-value finfish, such as hapuku, kingfish, and, of course, salmon, will deliver the lion’s share of growth in the value of the industry, says Andrew Forsythe, Chief Scientist – Aquaculture & Biotechnology, NIWA. It’s not been all plain sailing to get these first fish to the tasting plate, but NIWA has made a significant contribution to international aquaculture along the way.

“We have now progressed through every aspect of hatchery technology development for hapuku. The hurdles we encountered on the way have generally been similar to those of other commercialised finfish products, such as reliable spawning, initiation of first feeding, and working out the optimum water temperature for growth. I’m confident, though, that we are now on target to support the first pilot commercial schemes in 2012,” says Mr Forsythe.

NIWA’s aquaculture experts at its Bream Bay Aquaculture Park are the first in the world to close the life cycle of hapuku in captivity. The developments included the initial capture of wild broodstock, maintaining them in prime condition and breeding captive broodstock from them, and all the steps from spawning to incubating and hatching the eggs, and then rearing the juveniles.

As with terrestrial farming, commercial success depends on the pedigree of the broodstock and the economics of production – especially when you are trying to be the very best in the market. By developing selective breeding techniques and using DNA markers, NIWA can now generate high-performance stock, reared especially for commercially important traits such as faster growth and better taste. The fish at Bream Bay can now be spawned out of season, no longer rely on costly wet-fish diets, and are growing to market size within 14–24 months.

From R&D to the world market

But overcoming the technical hurdles is only part of the challenge: it has to be done economically as well. Investment in research and development so far has been funded by NIWA and the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. With the future for commercialisation looking promising, NIWA is finalising arrangements with a number of seafood companies so that commercial-scale sea-cage farming of hapuku can get underway.

International seafood buyers at the Sydney tasting event agree that the product meets the standard for culinary excellence, although some suggested that some dishes could be enhanced with higher fat content. NIWA scientists say this can be achieved through diet modification, selective breeding, or seasonal variation. Also, the hapuku the chefs tasted came from research tanks, so the taste could be even better when the product is farmed specifically for particular culinary qualities.

Rody Timmers, buyer for Tropic World Wide Fish, Amsterdam, said he could see the fish well placed in the premium fine-dining market in Europe if the fat content is improved.

Peter Manifis is another award-winning Australian chef, who also markets seafood products at international expos and food events. He says, “This is the most promising farmed fish I have tried – both texturally and flavour wise.” With reviews like these, farmed hapuku looks set to tempt the most discerning of palates at the world’s best restaurants.

Written by Greta Shirley, a NIWA science writer.

Chilled poached hapuku with summer tomatoes from Go Fish, by Al Brown. [Kieran Scott]