This is another post in the On the Road with Bunkycooks series. This time we traveled to a trout farm in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area in Western North Carolina!
I arranged for the Bunkycooks to meet with Sally Eason, who is the CEO and second generation of Sunburst Trout Company. I just had to go and see where this fabulous trout was coming from that we had on several occasions at Madison’s restaurant in Highlands, North Carolina and at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, North Carolina. Mr. Bunkycooks is also now totally addicted to Sunburst’s smoked trout after having it at The Grove Park Inn in Asheville.
Well, I went to round up Mr. Bunkycooks to head off to Sunburst Trout and obviously, there was a bit of a misunderstanding because I found him in his waders! I guess when I said “trout farm” he thought we were going fishing!
So, in order to solve the problem and get this urge to go fishing out of the way, we quickly headed off to one of the nearby lakes and went fishing! Since we were in a hurry, we couldn’t really do much serious fishing, so this is what Mr. Bunkycooks caught! Since this fish wasn’t going to even be enough for an appetizer, we released the poor little guy and headed off to find some real fish at Sunburst!
The Bunkycooks have been reluctant to eat farm raised fish because of mercury levels, PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other contaminants in most of what we know as “farm raised fish”. When we had this trout, we realized there was something very different and wanted to see what they were doing to create such a delicious and fresh fish.
We met with Sally Eason and her daughter-in-law, Anna (who is a big Tweeter!) to talk about why their fish is so special at Sunburst. I was also
feeling like a rockstar honored to be able to meet with Sally since Bobby Flay and Jacques Pepin have been to Sunburst. There have also been a number of articles written about Sunburst, including this one about Sally in Forbes Magazine.
Besides all the star quality stuff, I know their trout is special because I am not a fish lover normally, but this fish is sooo different and so good that even I will eat it! I find their trout to have an incredibly mild flavor and a firmer texture than a wild-caught trout.
Sunburst was started by Sally’s father, Dick Jennings, back in 1948. It was the first commercial trout farm in the South. The original trout farm was on their family land in Cashiers, North Carolina. They moved to this location in Canton, North Carolina in 1965. You can read the entire history of Sunburst Trout Farms on their website. It really is fascinating.
Originally, they had trout ponds, but then built raceways after a couple years of droughts where they lost most of the fish. The raceways are far more efficient and much cleaner for trout farming. The water that runs through these raceways originates in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area in the Pisgah National Forest and flows right into Lake Logan which directly feeds their raceways. This farm is also located in the shadow of Cold Mountain (yes, that Cold Mountain of movie fame!).
When they moved to this location, they had no idea how fortunate they were. Their water source is part of the reason that their fish tastes so mild. They are also able to create a situation that can mimic the wild and is almost more optimal for raising their trout than growing in the wild. The water flows through the raceways at a rate of 12,000 gallons of water per minute. That sure sounds like a whole lot of water to me! This rate of water flow also keeps the raceways very clean, so it is not a traditional farming situation. Their trout does not contain any of the harmful pesticides, PCB’s or mercury normally associated with farm raised fish. I am sure that is also why is tastes so good!
The temperatures in the water at Sunburst range from 50’s to 60’s in the Winter and can be in the 60’s in the Summer. One interesting fact is that a water temperature of 73 degrees is lethal for trout. We never knew that and obviously, that is a concern with this incredibly hot Summer. Sally did say that a good rain will quickly cool down the temperatures of the water, so thank goodness for those afternoon showers that we have here in the South!
We also wanted to know why their trout is such a pretty reddish/pink color. Most of the trout I have had has a
really gross rather unappealing grayish cast. Sunburst Trout is Rainbow Trout, not a hybrid (which might explain the pinkish flesh). The pinkish tint for the Sunburst trout is actually created by a naturally occurring carotenoid called astaxanthin. This is a powerful antioxidant that comes from Phaffia yeast and microalgae (and I bet you didn’t know any of that and nor did I prior to our visit!). It is added to the special feed that Sunburst has created for their trout.
The amazing thing to me is how quickly the harvest process is (one hour). They harvest about 2,000 pounds of trout per day four days a week. We were able to follow the entire process from taking the trout out of the raceways to seeing (and getting to take home!) the final fillets. (I will however, skip some of those photos with all the details!) The average size of a harvested trout ranges between 2 to 3 1/2 pounds.
In addition to selling to many local chefs and businesses, Sunburst ships some of their trout to chefs all over the country (as far away as California). Sally said that some chefs insist on 6 to 7 ounce fillets and others want 7 to 9 ounces (we all know how fussy chefs can be!). A few even want them with pin bones in! (You can take mine out before sending me home with the fish!) The larger fish are also used for their cold smoked trout (that is Mr. Bunkycooks favorite!). This cold smoked process is a revival of a centuries old Scottish tradition of smoked rainbow trout. Wow! If it’s been around that long…no wonder it’s so good!!
When I asked Sally about the shelf life of the trout, she said that because it is harvested so quickly (we saw it with our own eyes!) and the fish will be in coolers at 36 degrees within an hour of harvesting, their trout will hold for 12 days! She said that this is not true for every species of fish and varies depending on how clean the water is where the fish originates. Obviously, their water must be really clean!
In addition to the fast processing, Sally said their water source is another reason for the long shelf life. Their water has a very acidic base because of the forest and the hardwoods and this makes a difference in how long the fish will stay fresh. Here is a nifty tip. If you ever need to freeze fresh fish, be sure to add a little bit of milk to the freezer bag. Calcium will help preserve the tissue of the fish better.
I must say that this visit was truly a pleasure. The Eason family works side by side in this business doing everything from harvesting the trout to picking out those nasty old pin bones! We have even seen Steve Eason (Sally’s hubby) delivering their yummy trout dip to local stores.
This is yet another wonderful farm here in Western North Carolina that is producing and supplying local and sustainable food. Sunburst is certified by ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project). Thank you to all the Easons that I met that day (and see around town periodically!). We know that we were were
running around with cameras in your faces a little bit in the way while you were in the harvesting process, so we appreciate you allowing us to do that.
The Bunkycooks took home some fresh trout fillets and an assortment of other trout products. The dip and the cold smoked trout barely made it home thanks to Mr. Bunkycooks! If any readers are interested, you can order any of the Sunburst Trout products through their website. They will pack your goodies in dry ice and send them your way overnight! You can also find their products at select stores and farmers’ markets. If you have never tried this trout, I suggest you do! It is totally different than any other trout you will ever have!
The only thing we have not devoured yet is the caviar. Mr. Bunkycooks likes it, but I am on the fence, so we are saving it for a fancy cocktail party with caviar eating friends. Anna Eason says that her two little girls (the 4th generation of Sunburst) devour the stuff and fight over it. Maybe I should invite them over to eat it!
Below is a recipe for Sunburst Trout that was inspired by a buttermilk salad dressing that I had at The Grove Park Inn. I thought the flavors in it would be a perfect accompaniment to the mild taste of the trout. I was right! It was delicious!
Sunburst Trout with a Buttermilk Vidalia Onion and Chive Sauce
2 Sunburst trout fillets (9 ounces each) or any other nice, fresh trout fillets
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons sour cream (I used low-fat)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped Vidalia onion
1/8 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped chives
Fresh lime slices
Rinse trout fillets and gently pat dry with paper towels. Place in a large glass pan, flesh side up.
Whisk the first six ingredients together. Drizzle some of this mixture over trout to marinate (just enough to mostly cover the top of the fish). I used about a half of the mixture. Let this sit for thirty minutes.
Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat, with just enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the skillet (one or two tablespoons). When the skillet is very hot, add the trout flesh side down. Sear for approximately for to five minutes until it is nicely caramelized. Carefully turn fish over and sear skin side until almost crispy, another two or three minutes. Do not over cook the fish! Remove from the pan and place on a serving dish.
Mix the chives into the remaining buttermilk mixture and drizzle over the fish. Serve with a nice squeeze of fresh lime juice.