FISH ARE COMING!
"Redfish, halibut, char. Sounds like a counting-out rhyme? Then Marek Jirovec is right when he says we have a lot to learn. These are the names of some of the fish he imports, primarily from Iceland [...] He wants to teach us how to eat them..."
What led you to go into business with marine fish?
I started with wholesale distribution around five years ago. I had been working in a completely different field and one work trip took me to Iceland. It cast its spell on me and came home, more to the point, having had a powerful gourmet experience. I felt the possibility of filling a gap in the Czech market, an opportunity which might not come again. Together with a colleague, who loves good food like I do, I decided to import Icelandic fish to the Czech Republic. Gradually, we expanded to cover another six European countries.
So up to this point it was mainly a matter of logistics…
…and the attendant challenges. There are often storms. At other times they load a shipment onto the wrong ship or plane and then we have to chase it around Europe. Sentences from business partners begin "I thought that…" We encountered a three month fishing strike, a salmon fishery was cut off from the world by a snowstorm. But all of that is part and parcel of the work and wholesale is running smoothly.
From last autumn you have a retail presence - the e-shop Boxxi.cz.
We hope that an e-shop is the right answer to the question we have been posing now for some time. Namely, how to bring Czech customers closer to quality marine fish. Naturally, there are plenty of people here who love fish and eat them regularly, but overall we are still catching up and have plenty to learn. The average annual consumption of fish in the Czech Republic is 5.5 kilograms per person; the European average is 15, and the world average is 22 kilos. By a long stretch the most consumed marine fish here is salmon, in the best case scenario, from Norway. We are at the beginning of a journey and are only beginning to discover other fish. Boxxi.cz is not only an internet shop where you can find redfish, char and halibut, it is also for us about a kind of education, it is a communication channel. We would like to teach the customer how to recognise good fish.
They won't recognise it on their own?
Retail chains have been trying to convince us for years that the most quality fish is fresh. That is certainly true, when it is genuinely fresh. The nearest seas are hundreds of kilometres from our borders, and these are then seas which are markedly polluted. The notion that stores are offering a diverse daily selection of marine fish is naive. There are exceptions, places where it is possible to find decent, quality fresh fish. But the vast majority of what passes for fresh in the counters is in fact defrosted. In the better cases, once. It's not exactly fraud - you can read it on the label, but who reads labels? People fork out for the appealing presentation. At the same time they are convinced that frozen means poor quality. And there are plenty of cheap fish products on the market that only corroborates this. It is necessary, though, to take an interest in where the fish lived and how it made its way to us. To choose fish that lived in clean waters, that was sustainably caught and correctly processed.
Are you sure that your suppliers do all of this?
We abide by the principle of selling nothing we would not in good conscience also give to our owwn children. We choose fishermen who catch traditionally, returning to the harbour with their catch the same day they sail out. With our farmed fish we insist upon a natural form of breeding and feed without genetically modified feed, antibiotics, or growth hormones. The fish we offer are processed almost immediately after they have been caught, mostly by hand, sometimes with the use of the most modern and sparing technology. They are deep frozen at -60°C, vacuum packed, and expedited. When you gradually defrost such a fish at home in your fridge, it is comparable in terms of taste and nutrition with freshly caught fish.
Is it possible to be in the fish business and not participate in the plundering of the seas?
The sustainability of food production is one of the most pressing problems humanity is faced with. We don't want to place ourselves into some kind of messianic role but we are trying with our responsible approach to contribute our little something. It is for this reason that we mainly focus on Iceland. The waters there are among the last relatively very clean waters on the planet and contain a minimum of dangerous substances. All of the fishing there is sustainable, which is guaranteed and strictly controlled by the government. Icelanders came to their system following the cruel experience of the 1970s when they came close to completely wiping out their fish stocks. Today they keep a close watch, ensuring that no more fish are caught than the population can repace without problems.
Do you import fish from anywhere else than Iceland?
We also import from the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Russia, and The Netherlands. We thoroughly check all producers and don't work with anybody who does not share our philosophy or respect the rules of sustainable fishing.
You launched the e-shop in the time of the pandemic. How did it go?
We went live on sales on the 14th October, precisely the day that the government - in the middle of the second wave - began to close down the country. It was a curious start. People were forced to figure out how to work from home, care for children who can't go to school, and long story short, they had enough on their minds without noticing a new e-shop. But I have to say that we managed to launch Boxxi successfully. We have positive responses. Most customers order salmon at first, or perhaps cod. And then when they pluck up courage and try, say, redfish, the are on the way to the regular consumption of quality marine fish. And we in our turn are on the way to having regular customers.
Renata Lichtenegerová is an economic journalist. She writes for Finmag a Peníze.cz.