Talking to Tony Wearne from Shane's Seafood at Carey Bay in the lead-up to Christmas has become an annual tradition of sorts.
He has his finger firmly on the pulse when it comes to the seafood industry, and he's keen to share what's new and exciting and now available in store.
"I have a soft spot for the New Caledonian paradise prawns because they were the first prawns that we offered for Christmas the year I first started here at Shane's, 22 years ago," Wearne tells Food & Wine.
"As the young apprentice I was not aware of the circumstances as to why we were using an imported prawn, but I assume there was a problem with securing local prawn supply.
"I have fond memories of boss/owner Shane Snedden taking me down to the lake in the days leading up to Christmas to cook, cool and package a few tonne of paradise prawns for the local Christmas trade.
"Nowadays though, paradise prawns have become a premium product sought after by sushi and sashimi venues to be eaten raw, popular due to their super-sweet flavour and attractive bright blue colour when uncooked."
He's also excited about the cuttlefish meat from Shark Bay in Western Australia.
"I just love cuttlefish, and find it sweeter and more delicious than any squid or calamari. And the work of cleaning it has already been done," he says.
"It was my favourite dish and I used to eat it every week when I lived in Sydney, cooked by the late Jeremy Strode at his Potts Point venue The Fish Shop. It's best enjoyed with a Hunter Valley semillon."
WHAT TO BUY
"Summer is all about cold seafood platters and sashimi, and our sales reflect this," Wearne says.
"Cooked prawns, oysters, sashimi salmon, kingfish and yellowfin tuna are by far our biggest sellers in the warmer months.
"Who wants to be stuck in a hot kitchen, cooking, when you can enjoy such beautiful seafood with an absolute minimum of preparation? It allows us more time to enjoy each other's company, which is what the festive season is all about."
The best seafood species to eat in December and January, Wearne says, are local crustaceans.
"King prawns from Yamba, Balmain bugs from Coffs Harbour, eastern rock lobsters from Nelson Bay, blue swimmer crabs from Wallis Lakes are all in plentiful supply and in brilliant condition.
"Pipis from Ballina have been consistent and in great condition this summer too.
"As far as fish go, there has been an excellent run of bonito right down the mid-north coast of NSW that will continue through the summer months. This is a hugely underrated fish, and my favourite fish to eat raw for sashimi."
And the best seafood species if you're planning a summer barbecue?
"You can't go wrong with a swordfish steak or a large whole king prawn on the barbecue," Wearne says.
"Marinate the king prawns in your choice of marinade beforehand and get all that sticky, juicy goodness all over your hands and face when you peel and eat them.
"Or, if you really want to impress your guests, get a whole large fish cleaned and cook it whole on the bone, either wrapped in foil or out to get a bit of char on it.
"Reef fish like coral trout or red emperor are amazing when wrapped in foil, sweet and juicy, or a farmed Murray cod with its delicious layer of fat beneath the skin is awesome to do on the char grill. There's nothing better than picking all that sweet juicy meet from between the bones."
He describes this season's oyster supply as "solid" and says he relies on "a couple of really good suppliers" to source the best of the bunch on his behalf each week.
"Fingers crossed this good run of quality oysters will continue through to Christmas, but you can never guarantee," Wearne says.
"This week we've had a great selection of Sydney rocks, some from the south coast, estuaries like Merimbula and Wagonga, with a mineral zing and creamy finish, and some from Cromarty Bay in Soldiers Point, with rich vegetal notes. It's good fun to try both side by side and note the difference in flavour from different growing regions."
OCTOPUS IN DEMAND
Flotilla head chef Jake Deluca's barbecued Abrolhos octopus (from Shane's Seafood) with smoked bone marrow, potato foam, gremolata and crispy eschalots won the popular vote at this year's Hunter Culinary Association Food Fight. Is octopus becoming more popular?
"Yes, and especially so in the culinary scene. I'm no great cook, but from what I understand, its all about low and slow to begin with to tenderise it, then a secondary cook to get the charcoal flavour and finish on it," he says.
"I believe Jake's amazing dish was something like a 10 to 12-hour process, which is exactly why I don't cook it at home, but will almost always order it when I see it on a good restaurant menu."
WHERE IT'S FROM
Another trend that's likely here to stay is greater interest in the provenance of the seafood (where it's from) and if it has been sustainably farmed or sourced.
"The average consumer wants to be more educated about how their choices might impact the environment, or their health, or the world in general. And I love when people ask, I love sharing the knowledge," he says.
"The seafood industry is really interesting. It's dynamic. Fishing and aquaculture is impacted by so many variables that are out of our control; from weather, moon cycles and currents, to economic and political factors. I see genuine interest in our customers when I share the backstory of a particular product."
Shane's Seafood, 8/17 Laycock Street, Carey Bay, is open Tuesday to Friday, 11am to 5pm, and Saturday, 9am to 3pm. You can also order online at shanesseafood.com.au.
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