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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE

Home-Grown Specialties

Forget those fancy mail-order catalogs. The region offers such delicacies as smoked salmon, macadamia nuts, mussels and prize-winning salsa.

November 07, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an age where an increasing number of the foodstuffs we rely on are trucked in from afar or processed virtually beyond recognition, living in the Ventura area affords a few special privileges to serious eaters. Everyone knows that good produce is available year-round here, but it is less than common knowledge that a number of specialty foods are either farmed, cultivated or prepared in close proximity.

I recently made stops at four very different purveyors, and tasted some of the area's best local products; smoked Scottish salmon, Santa Barbara mussels, crackerjack Mexican-style salsa and Ventura County macadamia nuts. It's a tour worth taking, with surprisingly delicious yields.

Patrick Martin takes sides of salmon and achieves what Faberge accomplished with eggs--elevating them from mere foodstuff to objets d'art.

Martin is a a soft spoken, obsessive, red-headed Irishman who has brought his family business, Cambridge House, from Cambridge, England, to Carpinteria, of all places, where he produces smoked salmon so bright, delicate and perfectly symmetrical that one might be tempted to tack it up above the mantle piece, were it not so irresistible to the taste buds.

Martin grew up in the salmon trade, but his formal training as a chef pays dividends with regard to his product. He apprenticed at France's three-star Auberge de l'Ill and did a stint at Paul Bocuse in Lyon before coming to this country as a chef. A back injury, the loss of a father and the birth of a son combined in his decision to continue the family tradition.

Essentially, he buys Spay Valley salmon from Scotland, just as his family has done for over 50 years. But he imports the salmon on shuttles from Glasgow twice weekly, and does the preparation here. Martin claims that Scottish salmon have the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial to the cardiovascular system, of any species of salmon.

He also asserted that the fish come to him just 22 hours removed from their natural-water habitat. That, said Martin, is much less than the equivalent time for the domestic salmon smoked locally. Martin told me that local fisherman often spend five to six days at sea before docking with their catch. Because his fish are farmed and never frozen, he said, his product is the freshest available.

Furthermore, as Martin will tell you, much of the so-called smoked salmon that is commercially available isn't smoked at all, but "injected with salt and liquid smoke in horrible processing plants, enormous rooms the size of airplane hangars."

Cambridge House, on the other hand, is a small, spotless place where everything is done hands-on. The fish are first trimmed and the fatty bellies removed, a step, which Martin said, few smokers take.

Then the fish are individually salted, cold smoked with English oak and apple twigs specially brought in by Martin, and finally dried in a hermetically sealed room, free of any other product and from the possibility of cross-contamination, a potential hazard in seafood smoking.

This may be the best smoked salmon I have ever tasted--buttery smooth, velvet soft, subtly smoky. Others agree with this assessment. Martin said he has served his salmon at the wedding of British royals Charles and Diana and to luminaries such as Mikhail Gorbachev. He has also won a Judges Award at the Seattle Seafood Show and a first-place ribbon at a recent seafood show in San Francisco.

Martin sells his product, which is certified kosher, to hotel chains such as Four Seasons and Sheraton and to a variety of upscale restaurants, including Pane e Vino in Montecito and Los Angeles. You can buy Cambridge House salmon by phone, by mail order or by showing up personally at the business. Schedule permitting, Martin will even take visitors on a tour of his facility.

The finished side weighs approximately three pounds and sells for $59.95, delivered anywhere in Ventura County. You can have it plain or with a wonderful lemon pepper marinade, a blend of coriander, thyme, marjoram, fresh lemon zest and cracked pepper.

For an additional $5, a whole side, which is actually long and rectangular like a violin, can be split into four equal packages. The salmon remains at peak flavor for approximately two to three weeks, according to Martin. In time, though, the fish eventually becomes discolored and loses flavor.

Santa Barbara Mussels

A little farther north, in the Santa Barbara Channel to be exact, countless thousands of the world's most plump, succulent mussels are growing in clumps on the legs of offshore oil platforms.

Don't be alarmed. These mussels and the water that surrounds them are strictly regulated by weekly laboratory tests. Then the mussels are harvested, packaged and sold by a company called Ecomar, run by an articulate marine biologist named Bob Meek.

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