Once a staple of the Carolina coast, Mullet Roe is once again making waves with local chefs

The first fish eggs I encountered were on my grandfather’s breakfast plate one sunny North Carolina morning, mixed with scrambled eggs, alongside a cup of black coffee. I had probably spent the night at my grandparents, so everything was exotic anyway, but my grandmother kindly brushed aside my curiosity. “You know, Pa-paw fishes,” she explained, calmly directing me to my cinnamon toast. Over time, that memory faded, that is, until my work on the foodways of the southern United States brought me back to my own Carolinian roots.

Mullet has been a North Carolina delicacy for generations. Historically, local fishermen and their families enjoyed fish roe after a lucky morning catch, as did Pa-paw: fried with eggs and grits as part of a late breakfast. However, in some fishing communities in the region, the large lobes have been preserved, as shown in a photo of the North Carolina State Archives. Taken in Onslow County in the 1930s, the image clearly shows several sacks of salted eggs, laid out to dry in the sun on wooden slats.

Variations of this technique exist all over the world today. In fact, from Egypt to Korea, many coastal cultures have a tradition of dried mullet roe, a delicacy prepared only during spawning season, when fish that normally live in lagoons, coves and temperate and tropical saltwater estuaries, flow into the open air. the ocean in large schools to mate. Although regional differences abound, Italian bottarga is most commonly made from the prized gray flathead mullet (Head Mugil) which live in the salt lakes of Sardinia and in the harbor lagoons off the Tuscan coast. But the species thrives in temperate and tropical regions around the world, so it makes sense that a similar product could be easily made elsewhere. Once the mullets are caught, their delicate egg sacs are carefully removed, then salted and left to dry slowly until most of their water has evaporated and the soft lobes have concentrated into a guard-like clasp. eat firm and grating.

In the United States, the niche ingredient had all but disappeared until fairly recently, when Mediterranean bottarga began to appear shaved on pasta dishes at Italian seafood restaurants. Meanwhile, a widespread taste for Umami-rich foods, from parmesan cheese to fish sauce to fermented black beans, have contributed to a renewed interest in salted eggs, with its distinctive taste of the sea.

According to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, the gray mullet is “very fecund, relatively short-lived, with a low age of maturity”, which makes it relatively resistant to heavy fishing overall, and thus earns it the organization’s “Best Choice” designation, in fact the main recommendation for sustainable seafood. . Fish are an important food source for many other ocean creatures within their ecosystem, so certain limitations are in place; however, mullet typically run in massive schools of over 10,000 pounds of fish, far more than even the largest commercial boats can pull out.

One of the major mullet producers in the United States is the state of Florida, and in fact, Seth Crip of Cortez (home of the “Cortez Hot Dog”—a smoked red mullet in a bun) was the first to market domestically produced bottarga nationwide. Others followed, and until recently, North America’s limited bottarga production seemed to be centered in the Sunshine State. In other words, to North Carolina Local seafood, a hybrid wholesale-retail fishmonger and restaurant with locations in Raleigh and Durham, began producing it in 2018.

“I love mule,” says Locals chef Eric Montagne, who runs the operation. The Florida transplant, who grew up in the Keys, didn’t always feel that way. As the son of a commercial fisherman, when he started working in the kitchens, he looked inland instead, studying whole animal butchering to get away from the water. But when he moved further north to work for Vivian Howard in the now-closed eastern North Carolina Boiler Room, the local mullet on the menu took him back to his roots. As he began to delve into the state’s local foodstuffs, seafood, including mullet – usually fried or grilled – increasingly became part of his cuisine. He began to apply his knowledge of whole animal butchery and sustainable protein preservation, but with an emphasis on seafood.

“When you use fish fillets, it’s only 55% of the animal.” he tells me. “I started asking, ‘What could we do with that remaining 45%?’ He started using the eggs to make his own bottarga, but in restaurant kitchens he often struggled to get a regular supply. That is, until he started running the Locals Seafood kitchen and suddenly had access to the distributor’s increased buying power. “Finding the eggs has always been a treasure hunt,” he recalls. “I could only ever make a small batch.”

Historically, North Carolina has been one of the largest producers of mullet, at one time fueling westward expansion with a robust business of exporting dried fish to workers building the railroads. Americans. These days, state catches are mostly auctioned off to Japanese and Italian brokers or sold domestically to the burgeoning recreational fishing market for use as bait. Coastal residents still enjoy old local traditions like grilled mullet or eggs and fried eggs – just like Dad loved them – but these old-school practices aren’t enough to sustain an industry. Offshore fish like snapper, trevally, tuna, grouper and wahoo continue to dominate the market as marketing efforts, consumer tastes and the “premium” appeal of larger, more difficult fish to reap eclipse the humble mule.

“But people are still fishing for mullet,” says Glenn Skinner, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, himself a professional fisherman. And “roe quality” mullet is by far the most prized, despite the fact that a 1,000 pound catch usually only yields around 150 pound roe. In 2019, North Carolina anglers sold just over 550,000 pounds of exclusively roe-grade mullet, most of which was exported to other continents.

But the industry is still struggling. Mullet catches have slowly declined over the past decade (both ecosystem changes and industry response to lagging demand) and saw a steep decline in 2020 when borders were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting the supply chain for much of the time. overseas seafood market. “A domestic market for culinary consumption mullet would help support us,” says Skinner.

And it’s precisely at this inflection point that Montagne and his team are looking to make change, while minimizing kitchen waste and creating a cost-effective specialty product. Thanks to the wholesale company’s 12 years of building relationships with anglers, they can buy more fish than the average restaurant, helping Montagne increase production of its North Carolina bottarga.

Today, the Locals team processes an average of 300 pounds of bottarga per year. Most of it is used internally, although Montagne divides a percentage of production to select area chefs, and a sample of each batch is sent to the UDSA for curation approval. Later this year, Locals will expand into a larger facility that will allow the chef to increase production of bottarga and continue to develop other dried seafood products, from fish sausage to crunchy dog ​​treats to fish organs.

Although by commercial standards Montagne’s production is small, he and other chefs are helping to realize the much greater potential of restoring North Carolina mullet and its roe to its former glory and rightful place in the palace. American, whether by a micro shot of savory, sea-flavored crumbles over a bowl of pasta or a plate of fresh eggs, eggs and grits (a fisherman’s treat that I now order every time I go there) spy on a dinner menu). Papapaw would be proud.

Where to buy bottarga

Although Local seafood isn’t currently shipping their in-house jerky bottarga, which should change soon: Montagne and his team plan to move into their new production space in time for the 2022 Fall Mullet Race. In the meantime, domestic releases can be ordered online from both Clear water and Cortez, Florida; the imported Sardinian bottarga is available on Amazon.

How to use bottarga

In Durham, about 30 miles northwest of Raleigh, chef Josh DeCarolis at Mothers and Sons Trattoria uses local bottarga in riffs on traditional Italian cuisine. One of his most popular dishes on the menu is squid ink tonnarelli, mixed with local prawns, fennel, green onions and bottarga butter. The dish ends with a grated bottarga flower. “I’ve never been a fan of eggs and fish eggs, so to see someone here using [the ingredient] for a different purpose is exciting,” he says. Bottarga is about tradition, and I like to lean on it to add another layer of depth.

As for taste, DeCarolis thinks Locals’ version stands up to the Italian stuff. “I’ve been using bottarga for years, and this one is very special…It’s a bit more concentrated and drier, like the taste of seawater.”

Montagne, on the other hand, likes to promote the ingredient’s potential appeal, pointing out that a lobe can last almost a year in the average cook. “It’s shelf-stable, so just store it in a jar or bag in the pantry and grate it fresh. The more you use it, the more ways you will find to use it. And at Locals restaurant, he introduces uninitiated diners to homemade bottarga in an accessible way, either tossed into Caesar dressing or shaved over hot fries. The nuanced flavors and aromas of the dried eggs come through when reheated, and as marigold-colored shavings cling to the chef’s crispy potatoes, the heat from the fryer releases an unmistakably oceanic scent.

Receipts

Cuttlefish ink pasta with prawns, fennel, tomatoes and bottarga butter

Photograph by Belle Morizio; Food styling by Maggie Ruggiero; Accessories styling by Paige Hicks

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Caesar vinaigrette with bottarga

Bottarga Caesar Dressing Recipe
Photograph by Belle Morizio; Food styling by Maggie Ruggiero; Accessories styling by Paige Hicks

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