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Unloading the day’s catch.

The Italian family who built a fishing empire in Gisborne

The Zame family has been fishing off the Gisborne coast for 75 years. Simon Farrell-Green talks to a fourth-generation member of the clan about honouring the past while future-proofing the business.

In 1925, brothers Salvatore and Antonio Zame migrated to New Zealand from the Italian island of Stromboli. The two fishermen came to Wellington first, to Island Bay, where there was a little too much competition. When they heard pickings were better off the East Coast, they headed to Napier and then up to Gisborne.

Their hunch worked out. Salvatore “Charlie” Zame found good fishing grounds around East Rock and what is sometimes called Charlie’s Rock. After a year, they sent for their nephew, Bartolo, who served a two-year apprenticeship in his uncles’ fish depot, before going to work in the Cafe De Luxe, which was owned by a couple of Greek brothers.  Eventually, Bartolo would end up with his own fish shop, which grew into Gisborne Fish Supply, processing and selling his uncles’ fish.

Salvatore "Charlie" Zame.Nearly eight decades after the brothers arrived on the East Coast, the family is still fishing in and out of Gisborne and Poverty Bay. Many things have changed, but much has not. “They still talk about the same fishing spots,” says Bart Zame, though he won’t tell you where they are. “They still go out to the same spots – and that’s the thing, we’ve been fishing the same waters for literally 75 years.”

With his brothers Salve and Antony, Bart is the fourth generation of Zame men to work in the family business. Bartolo died in 1968, leaving it to his son Tony, Bart’s father, who began his apprenticeship in the family fish-and-chip shop and then ran the fishing company for 20 years before passing it to his own sons. (Tony is now officially retired but still cooks the fish.)

These days, the Zames employ 30 people, many of whom have been with them for decades – one bloke just turned over 40 years. All three Zame brothers grew up around the factory, working weekends and holidays, the business and family intertwined. “We treat the sea with respect,” says Bart, “and we treat the people who work for us with respect.”

The boats are painted Coastguard red and named after Bartolo the elder and his wife Giovannia, and after the island of Stromboli. They’re a familiar sight on the waterfront at Gisborne, crewed by just a couple of men, who trawl or fish using long lines, venturing out for a day at a time and bringing the catch in to be processed immediately. When the weather is good, they fish. When there’s a sea running – the day I talk to Bart, there’s a four-metre easterly swell rolling in off the Pacific – they don’t. And they catch only what they know they can sell.

Bartolo Zame, who emigrated from Italy in the late 1920s.

Today, Salve runs the company, and Antony is the operations manager, while Bart – a food scientist who worked for Zespri before returning to the family business in 2012 – heads up a new company called East Rock, which sells fish directly to the public. East Rock supplies restaurants and home cooks directly with tarakihi and snapper, in 250g packs that detail where the fish was caught, by what boat and who the skipper was. With East Rock, the Zames are looking to tell the story of the fish they’ve been catching for decades, and show people the manner in which their dinner was caught.

In years gone by, the Zames sold fish from the wharf, or from their own shop in Gisborne – so they already had a natural connection with their customers. “You go into a fish shop or a supermarket and see some fillets on a piece of paper, and you don’t know how it got there,” Bart says of modern fishing. “But there’s a massive change in the way we go about our daily lives now in terms of communication. People want to know where whatever it is they’re eating came from, who’s making it – and how it got there.”

It’s the final part in a production process that sees the family looking after their fish from the moment it’s caught to the time it’s eaten. “We’ve got our little boats and we’ve got our own quota,” says Bart. “We’ve got our own skippers, we’ve got our own factory. And now we’ve got our own brand.”

Last year, Bart conducted blind tastings with three New Zealand chefs who sampled some of East Rock’s tarakihi. The chefs all noticed a distinct difference in the Gisborne fish. It’s firmer, for a start, with a cleaner flavour that tastes more like the sea.

Two years in, the business is growing slowly but steadily, with export markets in Singapore and Hong Kong. “It’s a slow burn because what we’re putting forward is quite a step change,” says Bart.

It’s a big shift to go from buying your fish over the counter as you need it, to ordering online. But ultimately the customers come to appreciate knowing the provenance of what they’re eating. “We’re being open, transparent. We can’t go out when there’s a four-metre swell – so we don’t. And we let people know.”

Fresh Gisborne tarakihi.

Recipes 

Snapper with Asparagus, Vine Tomatoes & Potatoes

Serves 2

  • 250g pack East Rock Snapper
  • 220g new potatoes
  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 1 lemon
  • 30ml olive oil
  • 1 packet vine tomatoes
  • Flaky sea salt and pepper
  • 35ml rice bran oil
  • 40-50g butter
  • 1 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
  1. Portion the snapper fillets into two servings.
  2. Cut the potatoes into even sizes, boil in salted water until cooked through.
  3. Snap off the stalk ends of the asparagus and discard. If the asparagus is large and the skin is a little coarse, peel off the skin.
  4. Cut the lemon into wedges.
  5. Lightly drizzle 10-15ml of olive oil on the whole tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, cook in a pre-heated oven at 175°C for 4-5 minutes or until the skin is just starting to crack.
  6. Heat two frypans. In one pan, cook the potatoes in 10ml of rice bran oil and 10g of butter. Once they have colour from the cooking, set aside in a warm part of the kitchen (usually beside the oven) on a plate lined with paper towels.
  7. Wipe the pan out with a paper towel and put back on the heat. Add 15ml of olive oil and 10g of butter. When the butter is melted and starting to bubble, add the asparagus, season, and sauté until cooked to your liking.
  8. In the second pan, heat 15ml of rice bran oil until it is almost smoking hot. Season the snapper with salt and carefully place it in the pan. Cook the fillets about 70% through on the first side, then turn them over and reduce the heat. The fish will cook all the way through in the residual heat of the pan. Add a squeeze of lemon juice over the fish just before it has finished cooking.
  9. If the fillets of snapper are thick and you do not feel comfortable cooking the fish all the way through in the pan, put the pan in the oven at 175°C and cook until done.
  10. Remove the fish from the pan, add 20g of butter, lemon juice and the parsley to the pan. Quickly heat and this will become your sauce for the dish.
  11. Plate the potato first, then the asparagus, the tomato, and lastly the fish. Add the sauce from your pan and finish with a slice of lemon on the plate.

Gurnard with Quinoa, Spinach, Almond & Asparagus

Serves 2

This dish is served with gremolata, a classic Italian herb garnish made of lemon zest, garlic and parsley.

  • 1 bunch Italian parsley
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • 30ml olive oil
  • Flaky sea salt and pepper
  • ½ cup quinoa
  • 100g baby spinach
  • ⅓ cup roasted and salted almonds
  • 250g pack East Rock Gurnard
  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 10g butter
  • 15ml rice bran oil

Gremolata

  1. Finely chop the parsley and add half of it to a bowl.
  2. Finely chop the garlic and add half of it to the parsley.
  3. Add the zest of ½ a lemon.
  4. Add 15-20ml of olive oil, plus salt and pepper to taste. The flavour should have a good balance of all the ingredients.

Quinoa

  1. Cook the quinoa in 2½ cups of water. Cover and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for approximately 20 minutes or until the tails of the quinoa have released. Once cooked, strain off the excess water.
  2. Roughly chop the spinach and add it to the quinoa while it is still warm.
  3. Add the almonds; if they are whole, chop or crush them before adding.
  4. Add the remainder of the garlic to the quinoa, also a squeeze of lemon juice, 15ml of olive oil, plus salt and pepper to taste. Fold all the ingredients together and keep in a warm spot in the kitchen.

Fish

  1. Portion the gurnard fillets into two even-sized servings.
  2. Snap off the ends of the asparagus and discard. If the asparagus is large and the skin coarse then peel the skin off the asparagus.
  3. Heat two frypans. In the first pan, add 15ml of olive oil and 10g of butter (optional). When the butter is melted and starting to bubble, add the asparagus, season, and sauté until cooked to your liking.
  4. In the second pan, heat the rice bran oil until it is almost smoking hot. Season the gurnard with salt and carefully place it in the pan. Cook the fillets about 70% through on the first side, then turn them over and reduce the heat. The fish will cook all the way through in the residual heat of the pan. Add a squeeze of lemon juice.
  5. If the fillets are large, finish cooking in a preheated oven at 175°C.
  6. This dish is for sharing. Place the quinoa in the centre of a platter, then carefully place the gurnard and asparagus on top of the quinoa. The gremolata can either be served on top of the gurnard or on the side. +

Snapper Kokoda

Serves 2-4

  • 250g pack East Rock Snapper
  • 150ml coconut cream
  • ½ red chilli, thinly sliced
  • 8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 20g red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 lime
  • Flaky sea salt
  • 1 baby cos lettuce, cut into quarters
  • Fresh coriander
  1. Portion the snapper into bite-sized pieces and place in a bowl.
  2. Half an hour before serving, add coconut cream, chilli, cherry tomatoes and red onion to the fish, then marinade for 10 minutes in the fridge.
  3. Zest ½ the lime into the mixture and add the juice of ½ the lime. Season to taste with sea salt. Add more lime if needed to balance the flavour.
  4. Place the lettuce in your bowl or plate first, then carefully divide the fish equally, depending on portion size, into 2 or 4 servings.
  5. Garnish each dish with fresh coriander to serve.

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.