Call me a slacker for having two guest posts in a month (although you have to admit that Matzoh Ball Soup and Mullet Roe are pretty diverse topics) but I think this is a great opportunity for all of you to read about something other than my self-absorbed thoughts about food and cooking. This post is written by Regular Reader Robert, who lives in Florida, and who I first “met” about a year ago when he swept me away with his jewel-like prose to win a competition on this blog. He went on to support, amuse, infuriate and generally motivate me, and he has sent me mullet roe and a pair of oyster knives in the mail, so I know he’s real. He calls himself a “cracker,” but find that he is remiscent of Andy Griffith playing Matlock with that “aw shucks” veneer covering a mind like a steel trap (that probably has some kind of critter in it that I would refuse to eat). I hope you enjoy this as much as I did…..
It is the second week in January and I find myself cleaning Mullet again. January in Florida is a little different than most of the country, cool nights and sunny warm, if not hot days. Today’s chore is somewhat of a letdown, probably like Yankees closing up the barn for the winter. The fish are light and limber, lean from the spawn and just plain worn out from the last month’s excitement. They hung around late this season waiting for the cold water to signal their migration out to open water to reproduce. Tampa Bay was literally boiling with Mullet just 3 weeks ago, the cast netters did very well while the cold
weather held off.
Today’s catch are the young ones, that weren’t ready yet to go out, some with small ovaries partly filled with immature eggs. Next year they would have been large enough to complete the mission, had not they run into this particular fisherman. Some of the larger fish had already been out to sea and were empty of their reproductive load, their fat layer was all but depleted, muscles soft from intense activity for so long a stretch. But also in my cooler are a couple of fat hens, who somehow had not been triggered yet to spawn, ovaries firm and full of tens of thousands of tiny bright yellow eggs. Natural selection at work, the dumb and lazy do not perpetuate the species. These egg filled ovaries, or Roe Sacs, are a real bonus today, usually by this time the Roe season has long since ended here.
In years past a waste product swept aside with the other entrails, “Red Roe” has become a high end commodity worldwide. Since Mullet populate nearly every inch of the earths oceans, almost every culture of mankind exploits the meat and eggs of these prolific fish. In fact the mullet is a foundation to the entire food chain of the world’s seas. The sheer numbers of fish, from almost microscopic in size to over 20 inches long, is incomprehensible. Literally everything eats mullet, one size or another. So this is why the mullet produce so many eggs each year, to attempt to keep up with the world demand. As I clean these last few mullet it strikes me that it must suck to be the lynch-pin that the entire world marine environment hangs on by.
Since the middle of the 19th century man has had the capacity to wipe mullet out of existence. With the event of steam power, we have been able to capture and harvest fish faster than it can reproduce. Law and civilization have kept a cautious grip on this power, and when mankind becomes too aggressive, some form of conservation is tentatively enacted. As we move into a global economy, this logical restraint is becoming less effective at conserving the resource. Meanwhile, world demand for this delicious food is skyrocketing. Here in Florida, harvesting of Mullet is effectively limited to hand nets in an attempt to revive a waning population of fish in our waters. Without the mullet, the other important fish also decline in numbers and our entire economy suffers. So it is a difficult and precarious balance in the harvest of Mullet. And Mullet Roes are even more susceptible to overharvest. For each Roe Mullet caught before spawning there are thousands of offspring lost. Prior to our current rules, Florida was the destination of a global fleet of Red Roe boats that came to harvest the eggs, rejecting the meat and transporting the roe back to foreign countries for processing and consumption. When sport fishing declined the authorities here stood up and took notice. In the last few years the populations seem to have rebounded, and hopefully the fishing pressure will be balanced in the future to sustain the species.
With all that said, so many people all over the world can’t be wrong. Mullet roe is considered a delicacy in many cultures, and has been for many centuries. In its most common form, it is salt cured to produce a bacteria free food and dried to allow it to be stored for extended periods of time without spoiling. Known as Bottarga, Karisumi, and many other names, dried salted Mullet Roe is commonly available, always for a high price. This process is openly shared and is rather straightforward, as much of meat preparation and processing is worldwide. But the key here is freshness, cleanliness and caution. Raw protein, abused during processing, can bring on serious health concerns. Once harvested from the fish, the eggs need to be immediately stabilized and dried quickly. In most cultures, strong ultraviolet light from the sun is used in addition to high salt concentrations to keep the food safe until it is dry enough to store safely. When finished the Bottarga is covered in Beeswax or vacuum sealed and packaged in some attractive manner.
Ann’s Bottarga while drying.
Because of the extreme cost of the finished product and the high demand, there is money to be made in this business. Abroad cheap labor, inadequate facilities and production pressures can lead to some pretty groady product being distributed. Supplies are sometimes not questioned and fishermen are encouraged to increase harvests. So finding a reputable brand or supplier is something the end user should be conscious of. If you are going to eat Bottarga, this is just as important as free-range livestock, organic vegetables or eating locally. Lucky for me Florida is surrounded on all sides by oceans and rivers containing Mullets, and ample sunshine “damn near every day”. So once a year, when the chill hits the air, its Roe season. In our hands the finest product available can be produced for no money, just our labor.
So be nice to a redneck, you never know. (Ann sent me some Maple Syrup.)