Mullet are considered a “trash fish” by many. But females carry a secret golden treasure. / Nicole Coudal
Famed food writer M.F.K. Fisher loved caviar, among other culinary delights. In The Art of Eating, she writes of her time in Paris, where she enjoyed the “lasting delight of pressed caviar” (with vodka, of course) and that she would “willingly forego almost any other gastronomical delight for it.”
Now, if you’ve never tried caviar (pressed or unpressed), you might not understand such sentiments. But for those who treasure this sea-infused delicacy, there is nothing better. And it just so happens that such a delicacy is produced right here in our Florida back yard.
Bottarga as caviar
When you think of mullet, you probably don’t think of caviar, right? These bountiful, fast swimmers are prevalent in Florida rivers, bays, estuaries, and shorelines. But for the average recreational angler, they’re typically called “trash” ‐ or what I like to refer to as “under-appreciated.”
Speaking from experience, I can say they’re definitely challenging to catch with hook and line. Plus, they’re oily and offer a stronger flavor profile, compared to species like grouper or snapper. But there’s a secret inside the female mullet…
The females carry a very precious commodity ‐ bright, golden roe sacs that can be pressed, salt-cured, and dried, resulting in an amazing delectable called bottarga.
For many years, the prized roe from Florida shores was sold overseas (at a low price), where it was processed into bottarga and sold back to us for about $100 per pound. But since 2007, native Floridian Seth Cripe, recognizing the value of locally sourced seafood, has been producing bottarga at the Anna Maria Fish Co. (now under the parent company of Healthy Earth) using gray striped mullet harvested in Manatee County.
He later partnered with another Floridian, Ed Chiles of the Chiles Restaurant Group, who also has focused on the sustainability of local resources. They’re not the only producers of bottarga in the U.S., but they pride themselves on making a premium product. They’re also investing in the livelihoods of fishermen in our community, while creating international export opportunities.
Bottarga is environmentally friendly
The U.S. imports about 90 percent of the seafood we consume, and, in Florida alone, we buy almost $3 billion in seafood from non-U.S. suppliers each year. So, obviously, harvesting and using our abundant local resources will take us a long way toward sustainability.
Bottarga, when shaved or thinly sliced over pasta, grilled meat, bread, or roasted vegetables, imparts a rich umami (Japanese for “pleasant savory taste”) flavor, and it simply melts in your mouth. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a gourmet to enjoy this treat, because it’s becoming readily available in local specialty shops and in restaurants across Florida, as well as across the country.
The old African proverb “If you wish to go fast, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together” reinforces the notion that, when passionate individuals focus on ensuring a future for our seafood industry, we’ll definitely go far.
Nicole Coudal lives in the Sarasota area and is the author of My Delicious Blog, which showcases recipes using fish she has caught, or produce she has sourced locally. Read more of Nicole’s writing at mydeliciousblog.com.