"Do you have gumboots?" Tess asks me. "Ummm I answer well as a matter of fact I do" I answer her not mentioning that they're pink and white polka dotted gumboots that I bought from the children's section as I thought that the adult colours were just a bit drab. I was going to get a peek into a genuine wholesale Fish Auction and aside from gumboots, I'd need sleep as they start at 5am. Summoning a taxi wasn't easy, it was dark outside and tried to flag down three but they never even saw me. I was half asleep so I patted myself. Was I a ghost? I finally hailed a taxi and I get to the fish markets and ring George Costi of Claudio's Seafood to let him know I am there. He comes out rather perky for a man who started work at 5am and he hands me a fluorescent jacket. They'll go wonderfully with my gumboots I think.
The action in the stands
I'm led into a large hall in which there are boxes and boxes of fish and seafood in designated sections from A-D. The Styrofoam boxes in the centre are the boxes from New Zealand, the tuna and swordfish are in Section D and to the left are the live lobsters, eel and crabs, To the back there are bleacher style seats and each seat is fitted with a bidding mechanism and there are about 200-250 men (and one woman apart from me and the coffee lady). Facing the seats there are three huge screens.
The centre one shows the items coming up for auction showing the quantities and weights of each box as well as the supplier. On the left and right are two countdown clocks where the Dutch auctions take place. The auctioneer sets the highest price based on how much there is on the floor of a particular species and yesterday's value. The clock starts counting down and the price decreases steadily and when someone is ready to pay that price they hit the button. It's a game of nerves most times and one where even paying 20c a kilo over the market price can mean a saving of $150,000 a year according to George. Windy weather is particularly bad for the industry as the boats aren't able to go out in those conditions and this in turn pushes the price up.
The seats are lined with 200-250 buyers at any one time and range from larger companies like Claudios, Costi and De Costi who visit every day to contract buyers and owner operators of suburban stores who visit 2-3 times a week for their supplies. From 4:30am buyers can inspect the fish and the different grades available and the auction starts at 5am wrapping up around 8:30am. George knows that there are certain suppliers or fisherman that he can rely on to provide better product whether it be by their fishing or handling methods but says it's always good to check on how the produce is every day and there are three grades of quality which are priced accordingly. There are three fishing methods used today and each method produced a different quality of fish. The first is the trawler net, the second is trapping it with bait inside traps and third is longline such as snapper where they cast out 1000-2000 hooks and the fish are less damaged with the scales intact in the latter way whereas trawler caught fish are often squashed against each other in the trawler net. However trawler caught fish is less expensive than line caught fish.
Getting the boxes at the right price is quite an exercise, the clock must run for 15 seconds before any bids can be placed and in the instance of a high in demand fish, there are often several buyers jostling for the supply and who try and hit the button as soon as they can. Does he ever miss out? "All the time" George says. His restaurant customers can get frustrated and don't often understand why he is able to get fish some days but not others - until of course they come down and see the auction in progress. There is a maximum number of boxes one can buy at 15 boxes to avoid any one person buying up the entire stock and taking a monopoly. The old markets had the older system (similar to ebay) where people bid up to the amount that they wanted to pay but this was time consuming with auctions finishing around 11am.
In terms of imported versus Australian fish, only about 2% of the fish on the floor is imported (not including New Zealand). The imported fish you see at the supermarket are frozen and thawed. There are less fishermen now than say 15 years ago George says due to government buyouts and closures but there are now better boats and methods and measures in place to ensure that it is sustainable as possible.
Goatfish (or Rouget as you may have seen on restaurant menus)
I ask George how old the fish is and he says that the fish on the floor this morning was caught yesterday at the earliest. Some of it is air freighted from New Zealand which can also help alleviate short supplies from within Australia and even though it is air freighted it is no more expensive.
How did George start? I should explain that the name Costi is very well known in terms of fish shops. There's De Costi, Costi's and Steve Costi as well as lots of other George Costis and of course they're all related to each other. George's father started in the industry when he was 19 years old and he was part of a family of 10 children. De Costi is George's first cousin who joined together with his uncle Demeitriou hence the name De Costi taking the De from Demitriou and Steve Costi is George's brother. In total there are 200 Costis.
George about to bid
George started buying fish on the auction floor in 1985. His dad's former business partner Greg Imosides rejoined the business with George at the helm and they have been business partners for 8 years. Does he want his kids (there are 4 of them) to go into the fishing industry? Surprisingly he doesn't really want them to. And do women get involved in the industry (looking around I can see that there aren't many) and he says "Not really". George balances his work with full weekends and recently was part of a charity golf match between the fishmongers and fruit wholesalers where they played golf to raise awareness of Parkinson's Disease and they raised $115,000. Claudio's represented the Sydney Fish Markets while Zappia's represented the Sydney Markets and Claudio's narrowly won retaining them the "President of the Market's Cup".
I ask him how much he will sell the purchases for and he tells me a typical markup is 30% gross. He will buy prawns at $25 a kilo and be able to sell them for $30 a kilo. There is also fish that he buys direct from the suppliers out of auction, in fact most of it is bought direct. Salmon is a fish that is never seen on the auction floor and it is only sold direct which is to help protect the salmon farmers as Atlantic Salmon is a farmed product which has more costs associated with it (Australian salmon is not necessarily farmed). Farming fish in some cases can be more successful and Hiramasa Kingfish is probably the best example of a fish that is better farmed than wild.
There's a jeer and a boo that erupts occasionally from the crowd and I ask George about it and he explains that it's because they think that someone has overpaid for a lot of fish. There's a big contingent of Greeks and Italians along with some Vietnamese in more recent years. The biggest days here are Monday as it's after the weekend, Thursday as the South Australian suppliers deliver on a Thursday; and Saturday for the weekend. They'll keep fish for 4-5 days maximum and he buys roughly 500-700 boxes a week which is about 16 tonnes of product. Over Christmas which is his busiest time, they do 2.5 times this with the most popular items being prawns and oysters. Whole salmon and snapper and smoked salmon are also popular. And how often does he eat fish himself? About 3 times a week.
Live voice auction with crab, lobster and eel
There's some action happening in the left most corner so I go down to have a look at the the action in the live seafood section. This is a live voice auction George explains that live shellfish needs to be seen and inspected and he introduces me to his cousin, also called George Costi (see I told you!) who is nicknamed "Tiger".
The buyers here are predominantly Asian from Chinese restaurants like Emperor's Garden, Sea Treasure etc. If a lobster is over the 900 g/1kg mark then it will fetch more money. There are also Bailor shells which are used in Asian cooking much like abalone at a fraction of the price at $10-$14 a kilo. The live eels are in nets and are listless although when they're lifted, they wriggle. As for hints with buying crab, if they look brown underneath that will suggest that the crab is full of meat.
Philip and "Tiger"
Sustainability is perhaps one of the most controversial areas of fishing and George believes that it is a totally sustainable industry based on the quotas that are set out. Fishermen buy quota and once the quota is sold, no more can be bought and no more can be fished. It costs them about $8 per kilo for quota so they've already started paying for the fish before it is sold and as such, fishermen prefer local sales to ones in Japan where they may not get the return they want due to the ultra strict grading system on items like tuna. The quota cost changes according to demand.
George's purchases for the day
The main auctions are starting to clear and we see the Wheelers (people hired to move the boxes bought) taking away the purchases. George gets a list of his purchases and he will then mark the prices he wants them sold at in the store. Prices in the store change generally once a day although if something isn't selling he will drop the prices. This morning, he has bought $11,000 worth of product.
The Tuna and Swordfish auction room
Lighter tuna (at left, as seen in tail meat cut) is graded B- whilst the redder tuna (on right) is graded B+
We go down to the tuna and swordfish live voice auctions where the swordfish and yellowfin tuna are graded and there's a section cut along the tail to show the meat. The darker and redder the meat the higher the grading.It's important to bleed and core the fish and if the fish shows a whiter belly, it generally indicates that the fish died prior to being lifted onto the boat. A fish firm along the back is good as it shows that rigor has set in well. I see these curious perfect circle cuts like a melon baller out of some of the fish and George explains that these are bites from Cookie Cutter sharks who are worth reading about on their own. They're small sharks about 50cms long that can seriously damage naval ship equipment and are attracted to electrical cables.
_Cookie Cutter Shark Bite in Tuna
And what was the biggest catch? A recent tuna weighing in 223kg which cost them about $5500. The bigger the tuna the better generally, particularly the blue fin tuna which is so prized and only available to be caught during Winter. The belly of course is the most prized part of the tuna and they don't sell that separately, rather they sell quarters. If they were to sell it separately, it would fetch $200-$300 a kilo for the prized belly (or which there are three grades within it: toro, chutoro and the top grade otoro). George supplies some seafood to Tetsuya, Shiki, Azuma, Sushi E, Sushi Choo and Masuya group.
Moonfish or Opah
_George at his shop
He shows me an unusual fish, Moonfish (Opah) which is a luminous silver colour albeit with its head removed and there's also Stargazer or Monkfish. He tells me that he wouldn't buy the Moonfish as it doesn't look fresh at all which brings me to the question of how to choose the best fish. Intact scales and a good colour are a good way. The eyes, which are a popular way of choosing fish isn't always a good indication as some fish have cloudy eyes. A nice sheen or slime on the scales is good and bright red gills are also desirable although this also isn't 100% reliable. All in all he tells me that the nose is the best indicator. For prawns, a tight shell against the body is good but shells can vary for prawn types as Crystal Bay prawns have a softer shell as they're banana prawns.
A tuna quarter
As I'm walking around, a man waves from a shop and I wave back thinking that they're a friendly lot. He comes out towards me "You're Not Quite Nigella aren't you?" and I laugh surprised. "I get your emails every day, I asked George who you were as I knew your face and he told me that it was you. Great blog!" he tells me and I leave smiling.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you like seafood and if so, how do you like it cooked?
Claudio's Quality Seafoods
Sydney Fish Markets
Banks Street, Pyrmont, NSW
Tel: +61 (02) 9660 5188
The Sydney Seafood School and Sydney Fish Markets conducts tours twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays (the tour I experienced was not part of this guided tour so yours may be quite different). Sophie Crabb (02) 9004 1143.