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Humpty Doo barramundi

Well actually, as always, this is going to be about more than Humpty Doo. But I will start there.

The actual starting point for this was an advertising promotion in the latest Woolworths Fresh Ideas magazine for Humpty Doo Barramundi - exclusively sold at Woolworths it says. Not quite true. As well as fishmongers, you can also buy it at Costco if you have one near you, and also if you fly Qantas somewhere and they are serving fish.

When I saw the ad - which is actually a recipe for Crispy-skinned barramundi with Vietnamese-style salad the name rang a bell because Mercer's sometimes serves it on their menu. So I reckoned that if it's on a fine dining menu then it ought to be good quality. And so I thought I would do one of those investigations into companies. And it was indeed interesting, although you will have to go further than the Humpty Doo website to find out about its history.

Eventually I did track down a few articles about the company of which one by Narelle Hooper of the Australian Institute of Company Directors is a good example.

Let's start with that very catchy name. Humpty Doo is a small town in the Northern Territory about 38km south of Darwin - the farm is halfway between Darwin and Kakadu. Its name is a distortion of the name of a cattle station called Umpity Doo which was established back in 1910. There are a few theories about that name. One is that it is an Aboriginal word meaning 'resting place'. Another is a different Aboriginal derivation meaning two humpies. Then there is also Humpty Dumpty which in Australian slang apparently means upside down. I think I go for the first or second ones. Anyway, somehow or other it got changed to Humpty Doo - maybe that's where the Humpty Dumpty comes in.

In the 50s there were all sorts of grand agricultural schemes around the Adelaide River - most notably for growing rice. Most of which ultimately failed. Jump to 1993 and Bob Richards an environmental consultant with a background in agricultural science invested in a very small barramundi farm which was operating on the now defunct rice paddies besides the Adelaide River. He, his wife and his son Dan, however took an active interest and began selling the product to Darwin restaurants. Eventually all the other investors dropped out and Bob left his job to devote himself full time to developing the farm - attending conferences, and courses, both here and abroad as well as using a Churchill Fellowship to visit similar farms overseas. With government loans via its Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) and also from the ANZ they have, over the years since then developed the business to the point where it is now the largest Barramundi farm in Australia and the second largest in the world. In the next ten years they are aiming to lift production from 1,500 tonnes per annum to 10,000.

The farm is still a family business with Bob as Managing Director, son Dan as CEO - he seems to do most of the marketing side of things - with various other wives and other family members also playing important management roles.

Bob Richards' working method is to:

  • Survive – Start small, don’t run out of cash, don’t hurt anyone. You’ve got to get by.

  • Learn – Trial things and then apply what you’ve learned. Invest in education.

  • Grow – Grow through scaling and make sure you’re good at execution.

All good so far. And it gets better. Sustainability is a key aim. Salt water is taken from the tidal Adelaide River in the dry season, and then cleaned with native grasses, and reused over and over again. The fish's food is environmentally friendly as well. Any fish that die of natural causes are given (probably sold) to a nearby organic farm for compost. I am not quite sure about waste - but I assume it's part of that cleaning of the water process. Currently they are building up to the minute nurseries and their own solar farm. Admittedly most of this knowledge comes from the company itself either directly or via interviews, but I have not found anybody saying anything contrary to all of this good stuff. They work with CSIRO and are part of Sustainable Farms (Australian Barramundi Farmer's Association), which has a list of some five barramundi farms which it approves - most of them in Queensland.

They also have BAP accreditation, which seems to be one of the two top aquaculture accreditations in the world. According to Montreal Fish:

"BAP is the world’s most trusted, comprehensive and proven third-party aquaculture certification program."

The other aquaculture accreditation is ASC, but I do not think they have this one. Not yet anyway. They also do not have MSCI accreditation, but then they wouldn't because I think that one is for fishing and maybe does not apply to fish farms. Though mind you this is the certification that Tassal et al. are desperately trying to get, but then their farms are actually in the sea. Humpty Doo is on the land, although using sea water. I did see that some other barramundi farms are, like the salmon, in large pens in the sea.

They also provide jobs for local Aborigines - 17% of the workforce I gather, though that does not sound like a huge number really. And they support the local hospitality industry as well. Now that they do their own packing and distribution they have also increased the number of staff.

For barramundi, like salmon is one of those fish who live part of the time in the sea and part of the time in rivers. And I believe that river barramundi sometimes can taste muddy. Sea-water barramundi is best, and Humpty Doo barramundi has been praised for approximating the taste of wild sea caught barramundi. And here are a few facts about barramundi (another Aboriginal word by the way that means 'large scaled river fish'.

"A large female barramundi can produce 32 million eggs in a season.

All are born male, then turn into females when 3–4 years old.

It takes 24 months to grow from 2mm–5mm larvae to harvest."

Humpty Doo takes nine months to produce the size of fish that you might cook whole and two years for fish that eventually becomes fillets or steaks.

Humpty Doo is leading a charge to get the name barramundi applicable only to Australian barramundi. Like an Appellation Controlée. Which is a bit odd, considering it's a fish that is found throughout the South-East Asian Region and as far away as India.

And did you know that 60% of the barramundi that we eat here in Australia is imported? The fish is found naturally throughout the Indo/Asian region, and some of the largest farms (and fisheries) are in South East Asia. A Singapore owned company is about to build a huge farm in Brunei. So support your local producers and buy Humpty Doo - or Australian anyway. Supermarkets apparently are mandated to tell you where your fish comes from. Fishmongers not, although I notice that most of the fishmongers in the Queen Victoria Market label theirs.

So what does it taste like? Well according to one of America's large producers Australis it:

"has a clean, buttery flavor with a succulent and meaty texture. It offers a silky mouthfeel and a delicate skin that crisps perfectly when seared." The Better Fish

Interesting that they should call their company Australis.

So how to cook it? Well in any number of ways. They all bang on about the crispy skin, and you could do worse than watch this very brief video from the Recipe Tin Eats lady showing you how to make Crispy skin barramundi.

Another of barramundi's virtues apparently is its versatility and so I found recipes for everything from steamed to curry: Pan roasted wild barramundi with caramelised lemon / Maggie Beer; Pan roasted barramundi fillet blistered cherry tomatoes / Matt Moran; Barramundi curry with tomato and coconut / Adam Liaw; Paper-bark wrapped barramundi with saltbush wild rice / Adam Liaw; Barbecued barramundi with macadamia romesco / Emma Knowles - Gourmet Traveller; Sour curry of barramundi / Gourmet Traveller; Spiced barramundi with tomato chilli pickle - Christine Manfield; Steamed barramundi with Asian greens / Matt Moran

Now if only I could persuade my son to lift his total ban on fish and just shop carefully. Mind you I just looked at the Woolworths site to see how much Humpty Doo barramundi costs, and found that it's sold out. Maybe it was because of the magazine. Maybe it's the general problems with transporting goods. Not a good time to advertise your product though.

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