Nowadays, they cannot farm fish fast enough to keep up with the demand. Chefs, hoteliers, retailers and epicureans alike vie to get their hands on a share of the blushing fresh water flesh of the rainbow trout, which is versatile, easy to prepare and yet as luxurious as a private beach on a private island.
“In 1986, when we produced our first trout, nobody in South Africa had it on their menus,” says David. “They did not know what it was or how to cook it. These days, in addition to the fish we grow on the Three Streams farm (outside Franschhoek) and those that we produce as a result of our involvement in fish farming in the Katse Lake in the highlands of Lesotho, we constantly encourage other farmers who have access to suitable environments and plenty of quality water to consider aquaculture so that we can increase supply to meet demand.”
Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is among the world’s most widely farmed freshwater fish. It has been commercially produced in Europe for more than 400 years, in the United States for about 150 years and in South Africa, on a small scale until recently, for about 100 years.
Because it is less discriminating about what it eats than many other Pisces, the rainbow trout grows quicker than other members of its rather complicated family.
Yes, indeed, meet the Salmonids…Despite their family connections, rainbow trout and salmon are distinctly different species. Salmon are born in rivers. However, between the ages of two to six years (depending on the conditions), the young fish – called smolt at the rebellious “I just don’t care what it takes, I am going to the beach” stage of their life – desert the rivers for the ocean, where many live out their lives. Some of the more determined among them return to the rivers to spawn, thus ensuring the survival of the species.
Trout, on the other hand, generally chill in fresh water for the duration of their lives.
But wait, just when you thought you had figured it out, cousin steelhead – who is sometimes mistaken for a salmon – turns out, in fact, to be a rainbow trout, which, defiantly, like the salmon, heads for the salty waves of the ocean for at least part of its existence.
Then, to complicate matters further and to advance the incidence of identity crises among family members, the term “salmon trout” originated when, about two decades ago, European farmers began farming trout in the sea, as if they were salmon.
Accommodatingly, the fish adapted to the salt water, grew to about three kilograms and were processed as if they were salmon. Hence the introduction of the term “salmon trout”, which, while it does not actually exist as a species, is widely accepted as a name for commercially produced trout, particularly when lyrically reproduced in elegant script on menus. Have you got it yet?
Rainbow trout are relatively easy to cultivate in the right conditions, which translates to a reliable year-round supply of plenty of pure, cold water and cool temperatures. The fish survive in temperatures of between 4 and 26°C, but achieve optimum growth and spawning between 12 and 16°C. This limits the number of suitable sites for trout farming in this country and means that fish farming peaks in South Africa during winter months. It is unlikely that the country will become a global leader in fresh water fish farming but the potential for growth remains.
The 75 hectare Three Streams farm was originally purchased – by Andrew, David and Greg’s father, John – as a thoroughbred racehorse stud. Family fishophile Greg however, was quick to spot the opportunity presented both by the pristine spring that sprouts eternally and high upon the mountainside and flows across the farm, and the topography of the land, and – while studying agriculture at the University of Stellenbosch – convinced John to lend him R10 000 to set up a small trout breeding operation. (Greg later studied aquaculture at Sterling University in Scotland, where he earned an MSc.)
“High quality water that flows continuously is essential for successful commercial trout production,” explains David. “Ground water – such as that which we are lucky enough to have coming from the spring on the farm – is ideal, as is the gradient of the land that allows natural flow into the dams and provides good aeration of the water.”
As is the case with most farming, what you put it to growing trout is what you get out. Because males are prone to losing condition and disturbing the peace in the dam (due to their silly-boy competitive behaviour), ova for commercial trout farming – which is imported by Three Streams from the United States – is deliberately modified to be female so that only hens (female trout) are cultivated at the farm.
The fish are fed a diet that supports a relatively slow, natural growth, which helps ensure that they are tender, light and buttery on the palate, and that they present the beautiful blushing pink colour that discerning diners look for.
“In their natural habitat, trout eat crustaceans and other things that make their flesh pink, which has become a desirable culinary attribute of the fish,” says David. “We add a natural-based carophyll to their diet to produce this colour.”
Convinced, by 1990, of the significance of his sons’ fishing venture, John bought a smokehouse business close to Cape Town to process the trout they produced on Three Streams. The business, which was subsequently moved to the farm and renamed Three Streams Smokehouse, is managed by Andrew and uses traditional curing methods to lightly smoke the trout that is not sold fresh.
Three Streams also processes imported salmon. The company is currently working on a pilot project in partnership with a Hermanus-based aquaculture organisation to test the salmon farming waters.
In addition to the fish that are produced for the smokehouse, trout are also sold to fly fishing organisations for sport fishing. In fact, fly fishermen tell me that there is nothing better than catching a wild trout, preparing and cooking it yourself: “It doesn’t matter if it was originally farmed and then set released in a dam or river; the point is you had to work to get it onto your plate,” they say.
I am not entirely convinced; a ribbon of rich, succulent and lightly oak-smoked rainbow trout on a fresh slice of brown bread does it for me, as does rainbow trout simply fried with almonds and lemon juice regardless of its origins. Farmed, wild and/or direct from the vacuum pack, I am completely hooked.
Rainbow Trout and Almonds
4 rainbow trout, clean
30 ml seasoned flour
65 g butter
50 g flaked almonds
Juice of half a lemon
Coat the fish with seasoned flour. Melt 50 g butter in a large frying pan, add the fish and fry for 12 minutes, turning once until they are tender and golden on both sides. Drain on kitchen towel, transfer to a dish and keep warm. Wipe pan with kitchen towel. Melt the remaining butter in the pan, add the almonds and fry until lightly brown. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and pour over the fish. Serve at once with the remaining lemon juice.
(First published in The Weekender.)