On a recent cloudy April afternoon, Jamie Johnson was up to his elbows in sole, black bass, and halibut. Johnson is a manager at Jess’s Market, a busy seafood supplier to the Midcoast region. Johnson married into this family fish market business, but his knife skills and product familiarity suggest he’s found his calling. Jess’s is a full-service business, with fresh seasonal products that are hard to come by north of Portland: alewives, fluke, Beals Island crabmeat, shad roe and soft-shell blue crab from Maryland, farm-raised Idaho trout and Cape Cod scallops. Even on a Wednesday, the phone rang constantly and customers perused the seafood counter, the freezer cases, the wine and beer selection.
Jess’s sells fish to restaurants and retail customers from as far away as Damariscotta, Augusta, and Brunswick, and ships to mail-order customers around the country, many of whom find Jess’s when they are here in summer. What do these customers want?
“People want sustainable, local, fresh seafood,” said Johnson, who noted that while he hasn’t seen any dramatic trends in the types of seafood requested, he does have a harder time getting hyper-local fish. Sourcing is important, especially to a former fisherman. “I know where it comes from, and what it takes to get it here,” said Johnson, who has fished for lobsters and scallops.
“Local, to me now, is New England. If I can get fish from off the Cape, or Bay of Fundy, that’s local,” said Johnson, as he swung his fillet knife in an arc delineating the Gulf of Maine. While most of the market’s fish comes from distributors trucking product from the Portland Fish Exchange, Jess’s Market does obtain some products, including shrimp and scallops, directly from local harvesters. Behind the market, a complex of circulating water held tankfulls of vibrant, feisty Matinicus lobsters.
The market also sells value-added products. A creamy, dill-scented clam chowder sat steaming behind the counter. A home-made smoker out back cures haddock (finnan haddie), salmon, and mussels. Fish scraps become fish stock, a halibut rack (a carcass leftover after filleting) goes in a bag for the Asian restaurant up the street, and lobster bodies get picked by the Elks Club. Nothing is wasted here. And if the squirming young blue crabs are any indication, almost nothing is impossible.