Ed Chiles and Seth Cripe are leading a bottarga revolution in Cortez, Fla., one of the only remaining fishing villages on Florida’s gulf coast.
Cortez is located on Sarasota Bay in Manatee County and is a big exporter of grey mullet roe, which is processed into bottarga, to countries such as China, Taiwan, Italy, France and Japan, among others.
Florida exports more than 1 million pounds of mullet roe a year, some of which will be sold back for as much as ten times the price.
“Our goal is to produce all of the mullet roe in Florida, whether we produce it or someone else does,” Cripe says. “And, to promote the fisherman lifestyle. It’s really personal to me.”
Chiles and Cripe are cofounders of the Anna Maria Fish Company, which in its first year produced 500 pounds of bottarga. Bottarga is the the dried, pressed roe of the mullet, which is sold in blocks and shaved over pasta dishes, for example.
Now, the company produces between 8,000 pounds and 9,000 pounds of bottarga.
Cripe, who was born and raised in Cortez, moved to Napa Valley when he was 17 and founded Napa-based Lola wines. He started producing bottarga in 2007 and created the Anna Maria Fish Company in 2011.
“Mullet and mullet roe was always part of growing up, but people didn’t really eat mullet or care where it went,” he said.
The actual process is “not rocket science” and in Cortez, it dates back to the Native Americans, when Spanish explorers encountered Native Americans golden mullet roe in the sun, he said. The golden roe is hand-harvested, salted, pressed and set to dry.
“We’ve done a lot of work on dialing back the amount of salt to not oversalt while preserving the freshness,” Chiles said.
Mullet fish has a negative connotation in the U.S. because it’s oily, and, well, fishy. It’s also high in Omega 3 fatty acids.
“It’s not as hearty, but it’s only a matter of time. The food culture is evolving,” Cripe said. “Bottarga has really helped because of top chefs around the country.”
Cripe spread the word about his bottarga through the chef world, and landed clients such as The French Laundry, Marea, Masa and Alinea.
Locally, Chiles serves mullet in his three restaurants – Sandbar and Beach House on Anna Maria Island, and Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub in Longboat Village – and is a big proponent of the local, sustainable food movement because of its economic and environmental impact.
“Ninety-two percent of seafood is imported, and half of that is aquaculture,” Chiles, CEO of the Chiles Group, said. “Mullet is a native, wild fish that is super healthy.”
The season runs from Thanksgiving through February. Female mullet fish are worth about $1.30 a pound whole, while males are worth a mere 17 cents, Chiles said. Males often get thrown away when during the height of the season.
“It makes you crazy, Chiles said. “It’s so wrong.”
But Chiles is looking to reduce food waste across the board, by smoking and canning fillets of mullet fish, to planting garden boxes on Anna Maria Island.
“We’re very passionate about working on a wide range of sustainable efforts,” he said.
“The localvore movement is the most important movement I’ve seen in my industry in the 34 years I’ve been in business,” Chiles has previously said. “It’s the most positive. It’s the most important from an economic development standpoint, and from an environmental standpoint.”
Anna Maria Fish Company is based out of Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish.