Gigha-bites: the cultivation of Scottish halibut
Jane Wright visits Scotland’s only organic halibut farm.
If anything symbolises the success of Gigha’s thriving island economy since the islanders’ historic buy-out in 2002, it is Alastair Barge’s sustainable, organic halibut farm, the only one of its kind in Scotland. Perched above the shoreline on the east coast overlooking the Mull of Kintyre, the fishery uses sea water pumped through a system powered by the island’s own windfarm. Organic, sustainable, producing high-quality fish, using renewable energy, creating local jobs: Gigha Halibut is a heartening success story for Scotland’s rural economy, leading the way in organic practices that are both environmentally sound and profitable.
But the farm has been a long time in the making; 15 years of development drawn from formative experiences in trout and salmon farming and a long, slow painstaking process building up the country’s only halibut hatchery – Alastair Barge is a man of infinite patience. And when you consider that only one per cent of hatchlings make it to tiddler stage, when they are transferred to tanks to begin a journey that sees the adult fish eventu-ally harvested at three years old, this is a long and labour-intensive process. But at Gigha Halibut there are no chemicals, no pollutants, no machinery – everything is done by hand, from feeding to catching, making it almost a labour of love, which is why you might find fishery manager Jim Beagan singing to these large grey-mottled fish at feeding time. He believes in respecting the fish; that if the fish are happy, content and well-fed, they will grow steadily.
The halibut (hippoglossus hippoglossus) is a deep-water, flat fish most associated with the Atlantic, although they are found in the Canadian Pacific and in Norwegian waters. They are right-eyed (ie both eyes are on the top side of the head), can grow up to four metres in length and live to be over 50 years old in their natural habitat. But Atlantic halibut is now an endangered species due to intense over-fishing, and because they are slow to re-populate, halibut stocks cannot easily recover from the effects of over-fishing. Therefore a sustainable organic farm is the logical way forward to provide for a market that enjoys this mild, lean but fleshy fish.
Barge’s farm is unique in that it operates not within cages in the sea, like salmon farming, but in land-based tanks where fresh seawater – 1400 litres per second – is continually pumped through the system. This aerates the water and produces a constant current which is crucial for stimulating and exercising the fish, keeping them happy and healthy – and their flesh firm and lean. In the wild, halibut like to congregate on the seabed, so it is vital that the tanks have solid flat floors where the fish can rest. Two full-time and three part-time workers monitor eight circular tanks which hold the halibut at various stages of the three-year farming process. The tanks are designed with platforms to make access, cleaning, feeding and observation of the fish easier. Naturally curious, the halibut enjoy tumbling and bobbing in the current and constantly break the surface with their gaping mouths to see what’s going on. But they have to be protected from the sun’s rays as their skin burns easily, which is why the cold, generally wet climate of Scotland’s west coast is perfect for this cold-water breed.
Barge harvests three-and-a-half tonnes of halibut every week which is gutted and packed on the mainland and then transported throughout the UK, Europe and even America, where, despite having access to its own doorstep stocks of Pacific halibut, has been wooed by Gigha’s organic credentials and consistent, high-quality meat. For the future, Barge has plans to consolidate his operation, concentrating on developing the hatchery and continually improving the quality and price of his fish. In today’s markets, halibut sells for around £23 per kilo in fishmongers.
Halibut should be allowed to ‘age’ for a couple of days before being eaten, and is best treated simply, such as pan-fried with lemon, lime and chive butter, as Libby Donaldson, chef at the Gigha Hotel, likes to cook it. Flaky and tender, it needs little fuss to bring out its sweet flavour.
The farm also produces smoked halibut to order to their own secret recipe, and the result is a light, dry, delicately smoky meat that is dark yellow in colour. Perfect with a crisp, cold Sauvignon, smoked halibut can more than match smoked salmon with its light taste, dry texture and lack of that filmy sensation often found with salmon. For palates dulled by the ubiquity of smoked salmon on restaurant menus, smoked halibut is a revelation and a refreshing change.