Ocean to Mountains
A Boston resident hauls the freshest catch from the coast up to Vermont
Written onJuly 03 , 2013
Ethan Wood cannot wait to show you how his scallops twitch. “You see that move?” he asks, breathless. “You see that? These things are alive!”
We’re standing in the back of a refrigerated truck in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The scallops, sitting in a plastic box atop a bed of ice, do in fact wriggle when Ethan gives them a little prod. Less than 10 hours ago, the mollusks were still in the waters of Nantucket Bay. Five hours ago they came off a boat at a dock in Boston. In no more than two hours they’ll be handed off to some very grateful chefs around Vermont and the Upper Valley. And before the night is through, they’ll be pleasing the palates of some lucky diners.
This is what gets Ethan Wood excited. Fish. He thrives on the docks, joking around with the fishermen. He lights up in a kitchen, talking cuts and preparation with chefs. He is at home in his truck, connecting the spoils of the sea with the taste buds of Vermont.
Ethan is the founder of Wood Mountain Fish (tag line: “Bringing the ocean to the mountains—daily”). Maybe “driving force” is a better description, as three days a week he logs some 300 miles behind the wheel, fueled by a frightening amount of coffee, making the trek from the coast to the Upper Valley to the Mad River Valley and back to his home again, right outside of Boston.
With his scraggly beard, knit wool cap, and hooded sweatshirt bearing a craft beer logo, you might mistake Ethan for a Vermont local. Then he starts talking—his booming Boston tones lightened by a child-like enthusiasm for all things fish.
It was 2004 when Ethan first loaded his truck—then a pickup with a refrigerated box in the bed—with seafood and trekked up to the hills of Vermont. Why Vermont? “We’ve got the freshest possible ingredients. And Vermont has, even had back then, the chefs who value those the most,” he explains. “Well, that and the skiing,” he grins.
The sky above the Atlantic is just starting to brighten when Ethan gets to the Boston Fish Pier, where for 150 years fishermen have been haggling with fish mongers over the daily catch. Ethan is known well on the docks, not just for his frenetic energy but also for paying cash upfront for the catch. It’s not just that he pays cash—altthough that would probably be distinction enough for these old salts—but that he typically pays a higher price than the fishermen would get at the wholesale auctions that have become the industry norm. The benefits of paying a fair rate upfront do go both ways. “Who do you think gets the better fish?” Ethan asks.
Ethan doesn’t deny that he’s a “very picky customer,” in the words of one fisherman I talked to on the Boston pier. (Another calls him “fussy.”) “I get to cherry pick the best stuff,” he says. And when the supplies are low (or the “fish are tight” as the boys on the boat say), Ethan gets first dibs. “I have no warehouse. I have no processing facility. I help unload the boats…I just want to get the best fish out of the boats and get it into the hands of the best chefs in Vermont before the sun sets.”
Now 33, Ethan grew up close to the coast, just down the street from the Legals of Legal Seafood fame. In his teens, he worked for the legendary fish mongering family, supplementing his high school studies with this “Legal” education: his mentors taught him what to feel for on a swordfish tail, what to look for in the eyes of a halibut, what color the gills of a black bass should be. “You really have to rub your fingers on the tail of the sword to get a feel.”
When he first started hauling fish to Vermont, Ethan connected with Jason Merrill, then-chef at the Jackson House Inn in Woodstock. Jason, who these days runs the tremendously popular Worthy Burger in South Royalton, couldn’t get enough of Ethan’s product. “The other stuff was crap,” Jason says bluntly of seafood alternatives in Vermont. He is quick to credit the freshness of Ethan’s product for allowing him to win the “Best Seafood Restaurant in Vermont” accolade that the Jackson House Inn won when he cooked there.
Jason joined the Wood Mountain team on the distribution side—fielding some deliveries to the Mad River Valley, Upper Valley, and Woodstock regions—as did Ethan’s cousin, Elana Wood Coppola Dyer, who lives in Williston and connects to chefs and markets around Chittenden County. Over the past five years, Wood Mountain Fish has grown from a one-pickup operation serving a handful of restaurants to a three-truck fleet serving more than 40 customers—grocers and restaurants—multiple times per week.
The closest thing that Wood Mountain Fish has to a distribution center can be found in that parking lot in Lebanon. It’s roughly 11am on a Tuesday when I meet Ethan, Jason, and Elana, and spot the three trucks backed up to one another. (The same scene plays out on Thursdays and Fridays.) There’s the original Chevy, pushing 300,000 miles now (“This truck runs on biodiesel” reads a sticker slapped on the back); there’s a refrigerated Dodge Sprinter Van; and there’s a brand-new massive Isuzu NPR ECO-MAX that Ethan hauls up from the coast. They call it “Jaws,” and for a clean diesel vehicle it’s as advanced as they come. “Almost too high tech,” says Ethan. “We cover a lot of miles,” he says, “ but we try to keep our carbon footprint as small as possible.”
“Better than getting frozen fish from China,” adds Jason Merrill.
The three quickly climb into Jaws and start parsing the deliveries. Elana Coppola Dyer, standing at a laptop, calls out orders: customer name…type of fish…quantity. “City Market…sword…he wants a 12.” Ethan plunges his hands into a bin full of ice and pulls out a 12-pound swordfish, glistening.
Different bins are filled with fish and ice, bound for Vermont purveyors run by discerning chefs and buyers: The Farmhouse Tap and Grill, Pitcher Inn, A Single Pebble, Hen of the Woods, Bridge Street Butchery. Invoices for all the halibut and U-10 scallops and conch and Pemaquid oysters and cod and littlenecks are printed.
If you want to see the chronically upbeat Ethan Wood scowl, ask him about the seafood with which most restaurants work. “You find these paint-can scallops in 10-gallon containers with a three-week shelf life,” he explains. “Now that’s a little suspicious.”
And so almost all of his product comes straight from day boats in New England. A few specialty items—octopus from Spain, for instance, or “worry-free,” sustainable caviar from Russia—comes from farther away, but Ethan is quick to emphasize that he’d never sell anything he didn’t consider to be a sustainable stock and is always eager to steer customers to local alternatives first. He holds a special contempt for fish mongers who pollute their product with preservatives like sodium tripolyphosphate, a moisture retaining additive (not to mention a known skin and eye irritant) that lets fish travel longer distances and sit in display cases for veritable ages. It’s a common practice with the wholesalers and auctions at some of the bigger New England docks (although Ethan doesn’t want to name names).
“People should be eating local, all-natural fish with no chemicals and no preservatives,” Ethan says. “And that’s why I take it to Vermont.”
Up in Waitsfield, Chef Adam Longworth of the Common Man is eagerly awaiting the Wood Mountain delivery. When they bought the Common Man in 2011, Adam, who worked as chef de cuisine at the Michelin-rated Gotham Bar and Grill, and his wife, Lorien Wroten, had one hesitation. “Our only concern relocating here from New York City was that I wasn’t going to be able to get seafood.” At that point, Wood Mountain Fish was doing one delivery a week to the Mad River Valley. Not ideal for a chef who prides himself on seafood.
But as soon as he saw the product, Adam convinced Ethan to make more frequent runs. Today, he buys mussels, oysters, clams, Hamachi, octopus, black bass, and what he describes as “massive amounts of halibut” from Wood Mountain. “Ethan gets us as good a fish as I ever got in New York City. And I saw amazing fish there.”
For every transplanted flatlander who, like Adam (although he is from Northfield originally), worries that a move to Vermont might mean the end of fresh seafood, there’s a native or longtime Vermonter who has simply never experienced it. Adam thinks that better quality fish, like that supplied by Wood Mountain, better prepared, can actually create some converts. “When we first got here, a lot of the locals just didn’t want fish. They told us they don’t like seafood. But now we give them a fresh piece of seared black bass right out of the pan and they’ll practically do a somersault.”
Correction: In the original article the Jackson House Inn was described as "now-shuttered" We are happy to report that the Jackson House Inn is, in fact, open and began welcoming guests, again, in September of 2010. We regret if this error has caused any confusion. Please check their website for more information: jacksonhouse.com
Wood Mountain Fish can source you some good wild salmon. But if you love your Sockeye and King and Coho, and you want to tighten your connection to the fisherman who caught it, look to Vermonter Anthony Naples. Every summer, Naples heads up to Alaska to work on commercial fishing boats, and last summer he brought back a few thousand pounds of salmon to sell to fellow Vermonters. You can find Naples’ haul at CSAs and farmers’ markets around the Mad River Valley, or at starbirdfish.com.