High-flying salmon, crab: Two shipments passing in the night

HAPPY EATER

November 30, 1994|By ROB KASPER

From now until Christmas airports will be crowded, and not just with passengers.

This is the prime season for what I call flying food. This is my name for seafood that is hurried from one part of the world to another just in time for the holidays.

Often the seafood is a taste of home sent to comfort recently relocated relatives. Around here comfort food usually means shipping crabs for Christmas.

There are two main styles of transporting crabs to distant cities according to Scott Taylor, general manager of the Chesapeake Gourmet, a Lutherville seafood operation and one of a number of Baltimore area seafood houses that ship crabs.

One style is to buy the crabs at a seafood house and pay for a delivery service, such as Federal Express or United Parcel Service, to deliver them to the distant eaters.

The other is to carry the crabs on the plane, either as checked luggage or as a carry-on bag. Taylor's business, like several area seafood operations, sells shipping containers and cooling packs designed to carry crabs.

The advantage of using the delivery service approach is that it is virtually hassle-free, said Taylor. The drawback is that it can get expensive. Prices of crabs vary according to supply and demand. But on a recent day when large steamed crabs were selling for $28 a dozen, Taylor estimated that the total cost of sending four dozen to California would run about $160.

On the other hand, if a California-bound customer picked up just 2 dozen of the large crabs at Taylor's Lutherville store and flew with them to the West Coast, the cost would be closer to $70, he said.

"People come by here all the time and pick up crabs to carry with them on the plane," said Taylor. Most people want crabs, but some tote raw oysters or fish, he said. He estimated that with cooling packs, the seafood remains in good shape for up to 48 hours.

"People want a piece of Maryland," Scott told me. "The other day I sent some Maryland seafood up to Alaska."

Since crabs can be in short supply, Scott said crab-carrying customers should phone the seafood house a day or two before they plan to leave town.

The irony is that as some crab-laden planes fly out of the Baltimore-Washington area, they probably pass planes that are carrying smoked salmon in.

December is the busy travel season for Scottish smoked salmon. I learned this talking with J. Stewart Marr, who along with his wife, Andrea, run a seasonal salmon-importing operation in Orlean, Va., near Warrenton. The couple specializes in bringing in fish smoked by Keith Dunbar, whom they met in the Scottish Highlands 13 years ago. Dunbar cures his salmon in a brine of molasses, rum and juniper berries and smokes it over oak shavings from whiskey barrels. Then the salmon is flown over here. During a telephone conversation, Mrs. Marr told me that she is often on hand to greet the salmon when it lands at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. She carries the salmon home, gift wraps it, and gives it to a delivery service which dispatches it to customers in the Baltimore-Washington area.

The couple guarantees the salmon will be in the customers' hands within five days of when the fish left the Scottish smokehouse. I sampled some salmon a few months ago. It was fit for a king. The prices were royal as well. Prices, which include handling and delivery, range from $24 for a 1/2 pound of sliced salmon to $83 for a 2 1/2 pound of sliced side. Trout sells for $31 for 1-pound fillets.

Mrs. Marr said that some of their orders came from firms who give the smoked fish as Christmas presents to customers. "There are a few businesses out there who make a big deal out of thanking their customers," she said. But she added that a lot of the salmon orders come from families with grown children. "A mother and father will ship a side of salmon to each of their children for Christmas, then order one for themselves," Mrs. Marr said.

The Marrs' importing operation is so small that it ships salmon only during the Christmas season. Mrs. Marr said orders have to placed by Dec. 9 to assure delivery by this Christmas. (She takes orders by phone, [703] 364-2339 and by fax, [703] 347-3350.) There is a $40 minimum order. When the season ends, Mrs. Marr puts any leftover salmon in the family freezer. The flavor of frozen salmon is good, she said, but it is not nearly as tasty as the flavor of fresh salmon flown in just for Christmas.

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