When you start looking into local history, you always expect to find interesting connections. Sometimes those connections span greater time and distance than anyone could expect.
In this case, the bridge through history is created by a special form of roe (or fish eggs). In modern Italy, it's referred to as bottarga and has, throughout the ages, held a good value. It first appeared 3,000 or more years ago. Egyptian art illustrates the process of making bottarga, depicting fishermen netting the fish, removing the roe, salting the roe and, finally, drying it.
The Phoenicians, known throughout the ancient world as great mariners and fishermen, prized it as well. In the 1300s, there is an instance of pirates targeting a ship loaded with this precious cargo. Today it is associated most with Sardinia in the Mediterranean, though it is shipped all over the world.
To find out how this connects to local history, we have to look into the past as well, though not quite so far as the Egyptians.
In the 1880s, settlers came to Hunter's Point at the edge of Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay. These settlers were fishermen by trade and had arrived from the sounds and bays of North Carolina, an area similar in geography with wide expanses of shallow bays fed by rivers and open to the ocean. This combination of habitats makes for productive fishing grounds. The rivers and estuaries provide nursery habitat for various small fish and the ocean provides access for large fish.
The early settlers were well aware of this. The main fish sought out was mullet, a small- to medium-sized fish that travels in large schools. Large nets used by the fishermen were the main method of catching mullet. Hunter's Point won't appear
on any modern map, though. Its name was changed to Cortez in 1895 with the arrival of the first post office.
For more than 100 years, these fertile fishing grounds provided food for communities around the Southeast and livelihoods for local residents.
The net ban in 1995 changed all that. While the ban was put in place with good intentions, the impact on the local fishing community was severe. Families who had been fishermen for generations were now forced to find new ways to fish or other means of work.
Bottarga, though a distant connection, may be a chance for these stalwart families to continue. Bottarga isn't made from just any fish eggs. It must come from the gray or striped mullet and be harvested and prepared in a particular manner. The mullet, long seen as a bait fish by many and a great table fish (especially when smoked or fried) by a select few, has often had a bit of an image problem.
Bottarga may be the humble gray fish's ticket to popularity. With its increased value it could become a way for Cortez residents to continue making a living with the fish that has seen their families through the last century.
To find out more about the humble gray fish that has been food for centuries and the role they played in Florida's history, visit the Florida Maritime Museum in the Historic Fishing Village of Cortez.
The free museum is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It is at the corner of Cortez Road and 119th Street; more information is available by calling 941-708-6120. Mullet is available smoked, fried or as a dip at several restaurants and fish markets in Cortez. Bottarga is available at Anna Maria Island Fish Co.
John Beale, education and volunteer coordinator at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez, also lectures at the museum and around the county on topics related to Florida's maritime heritage. He can be reached at John.Beale@manateeclerk.com or 941-708-6120.