Austrimi Seafoods, 62-66 Cowie St, North Geelong. Phone: 5245 2600
It all seems a bit surreal – a bit of low-key musing on seafood extender leading to research about surimi landing me at a seafood processing plant in North Geelong.
Nevertheless, here I am, suited up – gumboots, skin-hugging white coverall, hair net for what little hair I have and even a net for my whispy moustache.
I’m the guest of Austrimi Seafoods and I’m here out of nothing but curiosity about the company, its products and – most of all – exactly how seafood extender is made.
I’m shown around – given the tour – by an amiable Englishman named Brendan.
He shows me the basic ingredients – byproducts of egg white and soy, blocks of surimi, corn starch – and the recipes on the wall.
He explains to me that while other company products see the consumer responsible for the ultimate cooking, seafood extender is edible out of the frozen packet – so health regulations are strictly adhered to at every step of the way. One slip and the plant will be closed down pronto.
All – including mirin flavour and synthetic crab favouring – go into a very big mixer.
From there, it travels along a production line that company regulations prevent me from photographing too closely, but which does indeed resemble – as a Geelong Advertiser colleague who has preceded me by several years on The Tour had suggested – an extremely large pasta machine.
The colouring is added along the way, before the product is sealed in plastic, steamed, cooled and eventually frozen.
The most surprising thing about being here is the least noticeable.
The smell is of only medium strength but, truthfully, smacks of nothing more than fresh sea air.
Certainly, it’s nothing like a fishy pong, let alone the odious stenches I have come across in other food processing situations, especially those concerning meat, some of which I have worked on in previous lives.
I may never embrace it, but having seen the manufacturing process, I now understand that it’s a relatively innocuous product.
It may be highly processed, but so are cheese, meat smallgoods, tofu and many other products treated as benign, essential and common in most Australian households.
And is there anything more highly processed and chemically compromised than commercial ice cream? Or soft drinks, which I love? Or those lollies laughably advertised on the telly as being “all natural”?
It’s along those lines that I have earlier pursued a line of questions with Austrimi general manager Russell Pratt.
Russell’s a busy man but when we finally meet he could hardly be more generous with his time and or in answering my questions.
Before The Tour with Brendan, we sit and talk in Austrimi’s boardroom.
Actually, boardroom is a bit of a redundant term, as Austrimi these days is a fully owned subsidiary of Ambaco, and is part of that company’s “seafood cluster” of business endeavours.
Russell, who has a background in sales and marketing, happily confesses that his current role is a lot more wide-ranging and – on occasion – hands-on.
He’s two and a half years into this, his second stint with the company.
Russell has spent almost all his life in Geelong, has five kids and lives five minutes up the road. He’s had an interesting and varied career but is happy in his current position.
It’s a small enterprise with about 30 or so employees.
Growth and the bottom line are important, but not at any cost.
The company is currently easing off from a busy period that saw staff working much overtime. Russell’s care for his staff is palpable.
One of the first things he tells me turns my head.
“Surimi is a dieing art.”
Of course, he means this strictly in an Australian context.
Surimi remains a nutritional and cultural fixture in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea and likely always will – as ubiquitous as Vegemite is for us.
While Austrimi continues to produce seafood extender, it no longer makes crab sticks and the company sees its future as lying in the realms of “value added” fish products.
The move away from surimi seems to be driven by several factors – inability to compete with extremely cheap Asian imports and a demanding retail environment looming large among them.
But, yes, it seems there is a perception problem, too.
I ask Russell how many times a week he gets asked if his seafood extender has tripe among its ingredients.
It obviously happens a lot.
“After a while, you hardly even notice it,” he says. “I’ve got more important things to worry about.”
Instead, Russell sees the company trading on its nimbleness in responding quickly to client requests and a dedication to high quality.
You’re unlikely to see Austrimi products in your local supermarket as almost all of its output is sold under client brand names, leaving Austrimi to do what it does best and well away from any marketing and branding details.
Russell is excited about a new line – hand-cut New Zealand hoki, crumbed and oven ready.
For those of us who live surrounded by fresh seafood at the likes of Footscray or Little Saigon markets, it may seem tempting to get sniffy about such a product.
But for those Australians living further inland and without ready access to fresh seafood, such products may seem a very fine thing indeed – especially at about $8 a kilogram.
I’m going to try it out on Bennie – and I’m sure it’ll taste just fine.
Many thanks to Russell and the staff at Austrimi for their hospitality.