The Browne Legacy: A Maine Tradition of Fishmongery
The Browne Family is among the oldest in Maine. The first, Nathan Brown (b. 1723), emigrated from England to America in 1746, first settling in Massachusetts. His grandson, Loyalist Brown (b. 1774), built the family homestead around 1800 on what came to be known to all as “Browne’s Point” in the center of Merrymeeting Bay on the Kennebec River in the town of Bowdoinham, Maine.
Loyalist’s daughter, Seraphina, married John Brown (b. 1801; no relation). John fished “in season, from which he derived a good income”, and was the first of the family to establish the tradition of selling fishing in Maine. Later, their son, John Loyalist Browne (b. 1834; known as “Loyal”) joined his father in the fish trade and named his business “Browne Trading.” As the years and generations followed, Browne Trading (the “e” was added to the family name by Loyal during the Civil War) continued in the seafood trade, selling to customers as far away as New York City. Caviar from the Kennebec sturgeon, shipped to the cities in iced barrels, became a particular trademark of the business.
Erle Loyalist Browne (b. 1888), son of Loyal, followed his family’s fishing tradition in the 1930’s through the 1960’s. He fished for ground fish by tub trawl and weirs, shipping “thousands of boxes of shad, herring and sturgeon” along with the occasional halibut or tuna. Rod Browne Mitchell developed his passion for the sea and fishing at the side of his Grandfather Erle. An entrepreneur at heart, Rod opened and managed a wine and cheese shop, the Winemporium, in Camden, Maine in 1979. Here he began to cultivate his taste for the best wines and excellent gourmet food , including locally smoked salmon and eventually, the seafood he once caught in the Maine waters with his Grandfather.
It was at his store in Camden in the early 1980’s that Rod became acquainted with the now legendary Chef Jean-Louis Palladin – a meeting that would reshape the direction of Rod’s career. Conversations lead to Jean-Louis encouraging Rod to carry caviars – and introductions to Iranian caviar merchants. Jean-Louis also challenged Rod to find him fresh scallops. From Rod’s knowledge of the local waters, experience as a scuba diver, and understanding of the local fishing culture, the now classic “Maine Diver Scallop” was introduced to America’s cuisine at the talented hands of Chef Palladin. Soon live sea urchins, Piballes (glass eels), live Lamprey, and the sweet Maine crabmeat which Rod coined “Peekytoe” (from the name “picked toe” used by the cottage industry of Maine crab pickers) were being sourced (and often caught) by Rod to send to Restaurant Jean- Louis at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Rod’s true professional expertise had been discovered. The word about his premium caviar and specialty seafood items spread amongst Jean-Louis’ friends: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud (then at Le Cirque in New York), and a young chef working under Jean-Louis named Eric Ripert.
In 1984, Rod found partners to back his new wholesale business in Camden, Caspian Caviar – “Wholesalers of the Finest Caviars and Specialty Foods”. In addition to his specialty seafood items, he became adept at sourcing the best wild caviars from the Caspian Sea, grading them on site and packaging them by hand under his “Caspian Caviar” brand label. Rod made a mantra of providing full education and traceability behind the caviar he sold: time of harvest, quality selection and grading methodology (a practice upheld to this day). Soon, many chefs were relying on him for their restaurants’ caviar needs. The list of Mitchell’s uniquely sourced items – along with his contacts and expertise – continued to grow, as did the number of restaurateurs who were relying on his shipments from Maine.
Browne Trading, Est. 1991
By 1991, Rod moved from Camden and established the Browne Trading Company – named after his ancestor Loyal’s business – from a rented room in a building on Merrill’s Wharf on the working waterfront in Portland, Maine. From here he was able to expand his sourcing to procure the freshest, locally- landed seafood (cod, halibut, haddock, monkfish, skate) off the busy Portland Fish Exchange, located only hundreds of yards away. Armed with one truck, and with his brother Loyalist “Loy” Mitchell and best friend Steve Bowman, Browne Trading Co. continued serving his renowned and growing clientele where Caspian Caviar left off.
Rod sought out only the best for his customers – with an almost obsessive eye for the freshest, unique and best items. Now chefs were demanding his “day boat” products – and selling them as such on their menus to their customers. In short order, Browne Trading’s local Maine and New England fish selections were further expanded by Rod’s pursuit of the next best and brightest entrée: Hawaiian and South Atlantic species followed along with Pacific Salmon and shellfish. Responding to his customers’ demands and after trips to Portugal and France, traditional European fish like fresh wild Turbot, Dover Sole, Sardines and Bar/Loup de Mer along with Salmon from Scotland were imported overnight, packed, and delivered immediately to chefs’ kitchens. Later, species came in from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
Soon Rod Mitchell and Browne Trading were becoming noticed by more than just the nation’s great chefs – the culinary media sensed a movement in this obsession with quality and seafood sourcing and sought out Rod Mitchell. In 1992 Lear’s Magazine did a feature article on him including photographs on location with Maine scallop divers and “Peekytoe” crabmeat pickers with Jean-Louis Palladin, Daniel Boulud, and Guenther Seeger. In 1997 he received the Silver Spoon Award in Food Arts. Art Culinare’s “Raw Fish Volume 44” Industry Spotlight declared: “While most seafood purveyors claim to carry quality seafood, the meticulousness with which Mitchell hand selects his products ensures that only the freshest, choicest fish and shellfish are shipped to his discriminating customers”. Mentions in Saveur, Vogue, and Newsweek followed, along with multiple articles in the New York Times throughout the 1990s – showcasing Browne Trading’s catches, caviars – and the chefs that demanded them.
Dating back to his tutelage by Jean-Louis during his Winemporium days, Rod had a passion and knowledge for caviars. With the formation of Browne Trading Company, Rod leveraged his global relationships with brokers in Germany to secure the best of Iranian and Russian wild caviars from the Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga sturgeons. Trips overseas to Russia and Germany helped position his buying power, and Rod was able to private label Browne’s own line of wild caviars under the “Caviar ASTARA” label name. In the late 1990s, Browne Trading partnered with famed chef Daniel Boulud to exclusively private label his own line of caviars expressly selected and package by Browne Trading.
Recognizing that the endangerment of caviar-producing wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Seas would eventually end the export of wild caviars under CITES, Rod set his sights to create relationships with reputable caviar aqua culturists around the world, a relatively new science and practice. This foresight positioned Rod to have access to the best farmed raised caviars in advance of the final closure and ban on wild products. Browne now sources the best farm-raised caviars produced today, as close as Florida and as far away as China.
By 1995 Browne Trading invested in its own on premises smokehouse facility. Using his knowledge of locally smoked fish from his Caspian Caviar days, Rod hired a Smoke Master with a culinary degree and together they began to develop their own recipes for smoking salmon– using only the freshest fish and all natural ingredients. Items like Smoked Trout, Finnan Haddie, and Smoked Shellfish soon followed The natural smoking techniques and use of all natural ingredients without artificial preservatives won over our customers, and in 1997 Browne introduced Daniel Boulud’s Smoked Scottish Salmon. Created to Chef Boulud’s exacting recipe, it remains a best seller to this day. The quality of Browne Trading’s smoked seafood have won many accolades in tests hosted by the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe and has appeared as recommended selections in Oprah and Fine Cooking Magazine among many others.
Browne Trading Market, Est. 2000
In 2000, Rod opened the Browne Trading Market, a retail storefront where customers from Maine and visitors from away could purchase all our products directly and have fresh fish cut to order. Now the community had access to the same products that were shipping to our celebrated New York clients. Additional lines of gourmet foodwares and cheeses were introduced to give the shopper a total experience, and soon the Wine Department grew to be considered among the best in Portland, if not the entire State of Maine. In 2007, Cooking Light Magazine ranked us second only to the famed Pikes Place in Seattle as the “Best Seafood Market” in the country, a story that was picked up and publicized further by CNN.Com.
Celebrating 20 Years: 1991-2011 – And Beyond
As current global conditions, fishing regulations, and culinary tastes continue to change, Browne Trading remains proudly rooted at the forefront of our industry, promoting farm-raised and sustainable seafood and caviar choices. In addition to serving hundreds of restaurants across the United States, we also service volume distributors, private chefs and caterers, and the home chef through our mail order and retail stores. We continue to source the “best” from Maine and all corners of the earth – and take great pride in our ability to educate all our customers about our products and the fisheries that produce them. The success of our business is a reflection of Rod Mitchell’s passion for the finest quality products as well as the desire to provide resources for the success of others in the culinary industry.