Bottarga – Poor Man’s Caviar Reaps Rich Benefits For Gulf Fishermen

by / Newsroom Ink on April 6, 2015
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Anna Maria Fish Company, produces the country’s first European style artisan bottarga from the fish eggs of mullet and sells the gourmet cured mullet roe at more $100/lb. retail. Photo: Anna Marie Fish Company

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

Lawton Chiles, the former governor of Florida, was known for his cracker sayings; one favorite was ‘It’s a poor frog that can’t holler in his own pond’. In the coastal village of Cortez, Chiles son Ed has joined with business partner Seth Cripe to “holler in their pond” – the Gulf of Mexico – about Gulf Striped Grey mullet. Their company, Anna Maria Fish Company, produces the country’s first European style artisan bottarga from the fish eggs of mullet. The gourmet cured mullet roe is sold at more than $100/lb. retail…something worth hollering about.

Located an hour south of Tampa, Cortez is the oldest continual fishing village in Florida. The waters surrounding the fishing village are known for having the finest Grey Striped Mullet in the world. For centuries fisherman here have harvested mullet, a fish typically smoked or deep-fried. When the roe of the fish is removed and cured, it is then marketed as bottarga, a Gulf delicacy with a lineage spanning more than a dozen centuries and five continents.

Mullet Fisheman Historical

Located an hour south of Tampa, Cortez is the oldest continual fishing village in Florida. The waters surrounding the fishing village are known for having the finest Grey Striped Mullet in the world. Photo: Florida Memory

For decades, Gulf of Mexico mullet was exported to Europe and Asia to be processed into bottarga, or Karasumi and Myeongran, as it is known in Japan and Asia. Recognizing a local sustainable resource, Cripe founded the Anna Maria Fish Company with Chiles. The company has gained international acclaim for producing some of the world’s finest bottarga; which Chiles describes as “the ultimate sustainable seafood”.

Sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s caviar”, Egyptian murals from the 10th Century B.C. depict fisherman executing the lengthy process of producing the delicacy that is bottarga. 11th Century Greek writings of Samuel Pepys laud it as an amazing hor d’oeuvre to be enjoyed with the finest wine. The Italian name bottarga can be dated circa 1500, where is appears in Bartolomeo Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate, one of the earliest printed cookbooks.

Cortez Bottarga

Bottarga

Cripe and Chiles began producing bottarga in 2007, embarking on a mission to bring a taste of Cortez and Anna Maria Island to the world. Photo: Anna Marie Fish Company

Cripe and Chiles began producing bottarga in 2007, embarking on a mission to bring a taste of Cortez and Anna Maria Island to the world. Cortez Grey Striped mullet is sustainable and rated “best choice” by the Seafood Watch program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“Cortez is located on the northern edge of Sarasota Bay adjacent to Anna Maria Island,” explained Chiles, a sixth generation Floridan with an avid love for Florida and its outdoors. “It was founded by settler from North Carolina in the 1880s, and named after the explorer Hernando Cortes. Today, Cortez is one of the few Florida fishing villages that has been able to retain its cultural integrity, and we are determined to help keep that heritage alive.”

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An Anna Maria Island native, Seth Cripe’s interest in the project stemmed from his desire to support his childhood friends’ and family’s way of life as fisherman and local restaurateurs. Photo: Anna Marie Fish Company

An Anna Maria Island native, Cripe’s interest in the project stemmed from his desire to support his childhood friends’ and family’s way of life as fisherman and local restaurateurs.

“There’s something special about the local fisherman’s lifestyle and connection with nature that is embedded in this community and we want to help maintain that for generations to come. This area was founded on fishing for mullet and there are Spanish writings from the explorers in the 1500’s that speak of the area natives drying fish and golden mullet roe sacs out in the sun. Striped Grey Mullet and its roe are such a deep part of our history and environment on the Gulf Coast and it to be honored as such.”

Working alongside Cripe’s mother Nancy and his borther Mic at their Manatee County facility, Cripe says the product has garnered a lot of interest with chefs and foodies in the past years as the local food movement has exploded in the U.S. “We started the company with the goal of adding value to the local community and fishing industry by processing the mullet roe into the finished product of bottarga and changing the business model from a commodity based market to a value added one. The interest from many of the nation’s top chefs and food writers was an added bonus and a direct assurance that we’ve been on the right path.”

A Sustainable Resource

Just as it has been done for centuries, crews of white-booted workers shovel the Gulf mullet from flat-bottom skiffs onto a conveyor belt where workers sort the fish by sex. The roe harvested from the females yields a product that glows with a deep golden color and packs a savory taste.

Mullet Fisherman

Just as it has been done for centuries, fishermen use nets to catch the Gulf Grey Striped Mullet that Anna Marie Fish Company use for their bottarga. Photo: Facebook/Anna Marie Island

Recognizing a sustainable resource and an opportunity to implement a value added business model to a Historical Florida fishing village, Chiles says “making bottarga here” is an important first step toward creating new markets for mullet.

“This product shouldn’t be frozen, shipped overseas and processed months later into bottarga and then sold back to the U.S. and Europe for as much as $200.00/lb,” said Chiles. “We can produce a premium, ultra-fresh bottarga here with a cleaner taste and a more golden color. It is some of the best in the world – hands down.”

Cripe and Chiles now produce more than 5,000 pounds of Cortez Bottarga annually. The roe sacs are salted, pressed, and sun-dryed in an Italian style native to the Tuscan and Sardinian regions, where cooks use a grate of the delicacy to finish many of their pasta dishes.

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“I met Seth Cripe while sitting on a panel at the first International Farm to Table Conference in New Orleans more than two years ago,” said Gulf Seafood Institute’s (GSI) Texas board member Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood. “After meeting his partner Ed Chiles and learning more about their process, I realized what they were doing was the direction needed to approach all of our seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.” Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsrom Ink

“We are committed to producing only natural, high quality products while growing the local fishing economy and helping preserve its livelihood for the enjoyment of future generations,” said Cripe, who splits his time between Florida and Napa Valley, California where he is an experienced winemaker and founder of LOLA Wines. “We produce bottarga in the same way as our wines in Napa – with minimum handling, preserving the freshness every step of the way to ensure top quality.” And the critics agree.

A New York Times article on Anna Maria Fish Company’s bottarga by southern food writer and historian John T. Edge describes the rapidly changing “cutting edge” culture of Southern food. Edge goes on to say that “Florida cured bottarga exemplifies that dynamism, with the potential to transform the regional fish industry and make an impact on restaurant menus around the country.”

“I met Seth Cripe while sitting on a panel at the first International Farm to Table Conference in New Orleans more than two years ago,” said Gulf Seafood Institute’s Texas board member Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood.  “After meeting his partner Ed Chiles and learning more about their process, I realized what they were doing was the direction needed to approach all of our seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.”

According to Gossen, the Gulf has all of this fantastic seafood, by finding ways to preserve or process it in the best possible methods will assure the fisherman receive the value they deserve for their hard work. “  I share Ed and Seth’s vision of only producing the highest quality products from our limited Gulf resources,” he said. “It is important for American’s to start using everything from the fish that is edible. Think of what people are doing in every other country in the world, they find a use for everything, not just the two fillets that Americans have grown so accustomed to seeing.”

Chiles

“We saw a need,” says Chiles. “We saw a community that is an integral part of our important Floridian heritage that was sturggling, and a product we are 100% capable of producing and branding in the U.S., in the villages of Cortez, being exported and done so overseas.” Photo: Anna Marie Fish Company

Anna Marie Fish is not the only Southern company curing roe. At Reef Restaurant in Houston, Chef Bryan Caswell has started to cure mahi-mahi and red snapper roe to add flavor to his original creations.

For Cripe and Chiles, bottarga is only the first step toward creating new markets for Gulf mullet. Fish emulsion fertilizer that can lend nitrogen to the soil for viticulture can be made from mullet carcasses. Smoked mullet fillets cooked over smoldering buttonwood show potential in the foodie scene and locals alike. A few small Cortez companies already sell the product to locals.

“We saw a need,” says Chiles. “We saw a community that is an integral part of our important Floridian heritage that was sturggling, and a product we are 100% capable of producing and branding in the U.S., in the villages of Cortez, being exported and done so overseas. This is what the future is about for us at the Anna Maria Fish Company, taking the best sustainable products from our waters, producing them locally to add value to our local community and economy, and then sharing them with the world.”


Cooking with Bottarga:

Toast

Bottarga Toast. Photo: Anna Marie Fish Company

Bottarga Toast: Slice some ciabatta or your favorite crusty bread. Brush on a very light coat of olive oil and then grill so it gets a little toasty and you can see grill marks. Thinly slice or grate a little bottarga and place it on top.

Bottarga and Pasta: Cook your favorite pasta and add a touch of olive oil and a teaspoon or so of bottarga per person and a little red chili flakes. Finish with a little toasted bread crumbs. Squeeze a little lemon zest on top if you like.

Bottarga and Vegetables: Brush some asparagus or scallions with a little olive oil and salt and pepper and grill so that it softens and has a little char on it. Poach an egg and reserve the yolk. Sprinkle bottarga over the grilled vegetables. Shave a little bottarga and drizzle the egg yolk over the top. Finish with a little toasted bread crumbs.

Caesar Salad Dressing: Make your favorite Caesar salad dressing and substitute bottarga for the anchovy.

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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