By February, Republic owner Ed Aloise hopes to add another locally raised product to his menu: tilapia from Hopewell Farm in Newbury.
When his wife was pregnant with their second child, farmer Marc Moran was curious as to why the obstetrician told her to refrain from eating fish. With a little research, he learned the doctor was warning against heavy metals found in the aquatic animals and also learned about the depletion of existing sea stock.
“It sounded like an opportunity to me,” Moran said. Over the next seven years, Moran visited a top tilapia raiser in Hawaii and turned to Google and YouTube to learn more about aquaculture and the raising of said fish.
“If you are interested in something, whoever is the best out there at it wants to tell you about it,” Moran said.
Moran opted to raise tilapia because of its rapid growth cycle, feed ratio and the fact that “they’re a really good fish,” he said. He now is the only person in New England to produce tilapia commercially.
As he regularly provides Aloise with fresh produce and meat for Republic (1069 Elm St., Manchester, 666-3723, republiccafe.com), Moran asked Aloise to sample his newest product. Aloise jumped on board immediately. For one year his will be the only restaurant to offer the local tilapia.
“When we opened our doors we made the commitment not only to do as much local as possible as we can for meat and vegetables but, as in all European cafés, to have a specialty,” Aloise said. “We said our specialty was going to be seafood.”
Aloise then placed a two-pound plated tilapia on the table. “This hasn’t been out of the water for an hour — that is how we will get them,” he said.
The fish will serve as a featured menu item at Republic, with no set preparation, Aloise said. “We will never have parmesan-crusted tilapia,” he said. “We will never present it the way it is seen anywhere else.”
Tilapia was a regular menu item at Café Pavone, which Aloise opened in 1989 and closed in 2000.
“Tilapia is good for permeation because it carries flavor and is a mild and sweet fresh fish…,” he said. “It can hold up to heat without breaking down.”
When preparing fish, Aloise said he typically sticks to a Mediterranean style of cooking, adding to it a little heat, a little citrus and a little salt.
“I want my customers to taste the fish in its purest state,” he said.
Moran began raising tilapia at his farm in April, with two 4,000-gallon tanks, two 500-gallon rearing tanks and two 250-gallon brooding tanks filling what formerly served as an equestrian riding ring. The timber frames of each tank were made using lumber from his own property.
While the industry standard calls for water temperature to be in the mid to upper 80s to raise tropical fish, Moran keeps his tanks at 70 to 75 degrees as he said it is not economical to raise it too much beyond that.
“It works just fine, contrary to the literature that is out there,” he said, adding that the Granite State has a
“wonderful supply of really clean water.”
Moran also practices aquaponics, the natural cycle of recycling of waste water, nitrates and ammonias, all of which provide nutrients for plant life growing in the tanks. The water is clarified through the roots of the plants.
A server at Republic brought out a grilled piece of the once whole tilapia sitting atop a bed of lettuce grown by Moran using aquaponics. “And it all ends up on one plate here,” Aloise said.
Aloise said he will not serve fish farmed anywhere outside the United States. Shrimp, he added, is delivered to Republic sometimes twice daily, from Portland in the morning and Boston in the afternoon. With restrictions on the amount of fish caught and on prices, Aloise noted that local fishermen focus on catching cod, haddock, scallops and swordfish.
“Everything else you see at the stores come from overseas,” he said. “As a chef it is very limiting. We want to be able to prepare fish different ways while staying true to our philosophy, so the opportunity to do this [with Moran] is magnificent.”
When the tilapia arrives, fresh from the water, it will be kept whole and filleted on a daily basis to meet demand, Aloise said. The fish will be incorporated into all meals at Republic, including its upcoming breakfast menu.
While he has no plans to try to compete with the tilapia from Central America and Asia, Aloise’s interest in his aquaculture venture has inspired Moran to expand.
“I think I’m in a pretty great position. I have the full market share if I want it,” he said. “At small farms everyone should be raising fish if for no other reason than to feed their own families. It is just that easy.”