The holiday season coincides with the busiest time of the year for our local fisherman. They're fishing for grey striped mullet. You're probably use to seeing the parade of boats that show up this time of year with interesting designs and cages around the engines.
One of the most critical, coastal areas of Manatee County is Cortez, the oldest continual fishing village in the Florida. Since man first walked on two legs here, mullet has been an important coin of the realm. The Indians feasted on them. Cuban fisherman traveled to our area to harvest them and, for the last 140 years, the folks from Georgia and the Carolina's, who migrated down and established the Village of Cortez, have been joined by future generations who rely on mullet for food and income. There have been some serious bumps along the way, specifically the Hurricane of 1926 and the net ban in the mid 1990s that put a generation of fishermen out of business. But, today the commercial harvest of mullet is a thriving business. And this year's harvest looks to be an exceptional one.
Grey striped mullet are caught by throwing cast nets. They are harvested primarily for the roe, called "red roe" that the females hold. That roe is shipped across the globe to Italy and Taiwan where it is cured and turned into a gourmet product prized all over Europe, the Mideast, Northern Africa and Asia.
The European version goes by the name of bottarga and the Asian version is called karasumi, but they are basically the same product. This is the largest commercial seafood product that comes out of Cortez. The sandy bottom grey mullet that comes
from our waters produces the finest roe in the world. That is why buyers in Europe and Asia place such a high demand on it. That's all good news and it is certainly good for our local economy. Make that great for our local economy! Best of all, mullet is the ultimate sustainable seafood. They are an extremely important cog in the marine food chain. They provide an important food source for many other fish species. But, it can get a lot better.
We need to appreciate our native grey striped mullet the way those in Asia and Europe do. We need to realize and capture the value here in order to increase the benefit to our local economy. That means eating the delicious super-healthy filets. Mullet has one of the highest Omega-3 levels of any seafood and it is excellent table fare, especially when it is full of fat before and during the initial stages of its roe production.
Ninety percent of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported and 50 percent of that is from aquaculture. We need to be exporting less grey striped mullet and consuming more of it here. Wild organic seafood is where it's at. If we are going to export it, we need to do so as a value added product and not as a commodity so that we capture the step-ups in economic value.
The math is pretty simple. With the current model, the frozen roe is exported at approximately $6-$15 a pound depending on its size. Once it is overseas it loses approximately 20 percent of its weight in the curing process and then it gets sold at well over $100 a pound retail.
Seth Cripe and I started the Anna Maria Fish Company in 2007 to produce bottarga here. We are now making, what we believe, is the finest bottarga in the world and we are selling it to some of the top chefs and purveyors in the country. We are working towards the day when we can reverse the current model and consumers in Europe and Asia buy the finished product from us instead of the other way around.
This model gives the buyers confidence that they are buying from folks that know the fishermen and who are curing it from fresh product, not frozen product that has been shipped from across the world.
Bottarga's flavor profile is round, fat and rich. It's a beautiful taste of the sea that is excellent in pastas, on grilled vegetables or shaved into salads. I love it on a piece of grilled crusty bread that has been brushed with a little olive oil. Visit annmariafishcompany.com to try this great gourmet product or come out and try it at one of our restaurants.
Here are some ways you can use bottarga:
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.
Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar, BeachHouse and Mar Vista restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, can be reached at 941-778-1696.