The Murray cod may be a lazy, fat old bastard - and who can blame it - but its size and its creamy flesh have made it a native fish for the ages, as John Susman argues.
The scene: it's spring 1970, at the Crown Hotel in Wentworth, south-west NSW. It’s late in the afternoon and I’m sitting in the back of my old man's HG Holden ute, quietly sipping a raspberry and lemonade having just polished off the wild rabbit pie mum had sent us off with that morning, when a rabble of blokes literally falls out of the pub.
Leading the rabble is Dave Susman – part Indiana Jones, part Keith Floyd, 100 per cent mad keen fisherman. Clearly there is a dispute and not surprisingly Dave is at the centre of it.
Like all September holidays for the previous 8 years (and for the next 8) we were up the river, on the mighty Murray at Lock 9, camping at my Uncle Sam’s shack on the picturesque Lake Cullulleraine.
Of all the annual fishing odysseys – Blue crab raking on the inter-tidal sand banks off Ardrossan in late January, hand lining for King George Whiting off Carrickalinga beach in December, Green Back Flounder spearing in Coffin Bay at Easter and trapping Crayfish on Kangaroo Island in June, the pilgrimage to the “River” was the most exciting.
While there was always a certain inevitability about the haul of crabs, whiting, flounder and even crays that would occur on the other missions, it was the hunt for the Murray Cod that involved the most preparation, planning and importantly, covert intelligence operations.
There were several September holidays when all this work resulted in naught – sure we’d eat our fill of yabbies, yellow belly, red-fin and even the odd Murray Crayfish – but we could be heading home having not caught a single Murray Cod in two weeks.
The rabble falling out of the Crown Hotel late on that dusty September afternoon was the result of a couple of locals taking umbrage to the investigative techniques being deployed by Dave Susman. Most fishermen are reluctant to share local knowledge with fellow anglers, those hunting Murray Cod never offer any mail, let alone to out-of-towners.
That afternoon, the old man’s overt generosity at the bar had been greedily exploited by the locals, until his question about what bait the cod were taking had led to his no-nonsense expulsion.
We headed back to the shack at Lake Cullullaraine with a bucket of yabbies, a brace of redfin but no Murray Cod and no further idea of how we might catch a cod.
The hunt for the Murray Cod is the thing careers are made of, for the Murray Cod is a fish without peer.
A mythical legend, endemic to the waters of the Murray Darling Basin. Even the name is itself a mystery, baring no resemblance or relationship to the famed Atlantic cod (let alone the recently abused Blue Eye Cod).
Murray Cod is a fish native to Australia and is proudly amongst the largest freshwater exclusive finfish species on the planet. Some recorded fish are over 1.8 metres in length and weighing over a massive 115kg.
Early last century it was almost fished to extinction and still remains on the endangered species list, which when combined with the expansion of dry land irrigation for cropping of water thirsty plants created massive natural Murray Cod habitat degradation, reducing the size of it’s back yard and importantly bedroom, to an uncomfortable and unproductive state.
In 2003, the Federal Government listed the cod as vulnerable and in October, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the cod critically endangered - one step away from extinction in the wild - putting it in a category alongside Africa’s mountain gorilla.
Suffice to say, the species can no longer be commercially fished and the taking of it by recreational fishers has been massively restricted.
Murray Cod is a big, robust and barrel shaped fish with a huge mouth and small eyes set well forward on its head and an olive to yellow /green mottled back skin and a creamy yellow to white belly.
As an “apex predator” it will eat pretty much anything smaller than itself, being particularly fond of ducks, crayfish, fatty fish and shrimp and as it is shy of undertaking much exercise – in fact, it’s a bloody lazy fellow the Murray Cod, although slow growing, readily packs on fat as a mature fish.
Aside from its uniqueness and rarity, it is this feeding and lifestyle of the Murray Cod that makes it such a memorable feed.
The raw flesh is pale grey/white in colour, often with dark or pink capillaries trough the muscle and a thick layer of creamy fat on the lining of the belly. When cooked, the flesh is brilliant white, juicy and rich with a broad flake and a creamy, mild flavour that is truly unique.
With mildly earthy tones and a complex, umami packed flavour it is the high fat content that is unlike any other freshwater fish I have eaten anywhere.
It is these bloody delicious eating qualities of Murray Cod that has driven the commercial development of the aquaculture farming with farms now existing in every State and State Hatcheries in Victoria, NSW and Western Australia producing fingerlings for the grow out farms.
One of the largest Murray Cod Farms ever developed in Australia, opened in 2013 just East of Goulburn in NSW.
The Marianvale Blue Cod facility has been designed with fish quality and sustainability in mind – the fish are grown in an indoor facility not unlike a very large aircraft hangar, in temperature-controlled tanks, which optimise fish health and growing conditions.
The water in the grow-out tanks, sourced from freshwater bores on the property is continuously agitated in the tanks to ensure the prolifically lazy fish are continuously swimming.
The result is good muscle tone and an even layering of fat through the muscle, not only packed into the belly cavity.
The Murray Cod has become a popular fish with Asian restaurants, in past due to it’s hardiness and ability to survive live in varying water conditions and without feed for some time.
The legendary Gilbert Lau, previously of Melbourne’s high temple of Cantonese cuisine, Flower Drum, has long held the Murray Cod up as the luxury Australian fish, served simply steamed with Ginger and Shallots – it is a true treat.
It’s fair to say that the mild flavoured, fatty flesh, suits the classic Cantonese steamed whole fish preparations well has also been part of it’s popularity in the Asian sector.
Off the bone, the Murray Cod is a low yielding fish – at about 30% edible flesh to total body weight and as a result it is not a cheap fish – demanding respect from both chef and diner.
Chefs such as Neil Perry, Martin Benn, Karl Firla, Dan Hong and Steve Hodges agree that it’s uniqueness, flavour and texture make it a worthwhile addition to a menu and that it’s versatility is unbounded.
It’s an unforgettable culinary experience, my first taste, a cutlet dredged through seasoned flour and cooked in way too much butter – sitting on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River listening to the old man crow proudly about his 6 hour battle with a 65lb monster cod – will stay with me forever.
When it comes to featuring native ingredients and In the words of Indiana Jones “ I think it’s time to ask yourself what do you believe in?”
Insects, berries and leaves with dubious flavour and texture or a delicious, fat old bastard who calls Australia Home. Give Murray Cod a go – you know it makes sense! •