Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Brazilian Bottarga - Tainha Roe is Golden

In the winter months of May and June, the waters off the coast of Brazil's southern state of Santa Catarina teem with enormous schools of tainha, or mullet as it's known in English. They migrate to these waters to escape the colder waters further south and to spawn. They are excellent eating fish, and the fishermen of that state, mostly descendents of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, depend on the tainha for a large portion of their income.

Traditionally in Brazil tainha was eaten fried, grilled, baked or in a sauce, and it was the flesh of the fish that was consumed. However, the fact that many of the fish that were caught were gravid with roe meant that a local market grew for the roe, also eaten fresh - primarily fried in oil. The roe (called ova in Portuguese) is exceptionally delicious and delicate, and for descendents of Europeans not an uncommon dish.

Mullet roe happens to be something that's long been eaten in Italy, since Roman times in fact. When this roe is salt-cured and dried it turns to gold - both literally and economically. This product is known in Italy, and increasingly throughout the gastronomic universe, as bottarga. Eaten throughout the Mediterranean world, the hard, salty roe is thinly sliced and served as an appetizer, or grated over pasta dishes. It is considered a luxury item, and good quality bottarga is very expensive indeed.

Historically, the Mediterranean Sea was the source of the mullet roe that was processed into bottarga, but these waters have been extensively fished, and there are insufficient stocks of mullets left for a commercially viable mullet fishery. Consequently, although bottarga is associated in almost everyone's mind with Italy, and Italy consumes the major share of this product, today most bottarga doesn't come from Italy. It comes, instead, from those tainha spawning off the shores of southern Brazil. Just as most Dijon mustard originates from Canadian mustard seed, and the durum sheat for most Italian pasta also arrives in Italy direct from the wheat-fields of the Canadian prairie, Italian bottarga is much more likely to be Brazilian than Italian.

Back in the late 1950s a family of Brazilian of European origin with the (somewhat unfortunate) name of Fuck - I'm not making this up - began working in the fish industry in Santa Catarina, and their company grew to become a large producer of fresh and processed fish products. Realizing the commercial potential of their huge harvest of mullet roe, the company's current commercial director, Bernardo Fuck, decided to produce bottarga for export, and to develop a domestic market in Brazil for bottarga. In their plant in Itajaí, Santa Catarina, they currently produce up to 50 kgs. monthly of the delicacy, salting and drying it in their own facilities. They commercialize the product under the name Bottarga Gold, and have developed markets for the product both in Brazil and overseas. Their market slogan is "Bottarga Gold - Brazil's Own True Caviar."

Bottarga will likely always be a luxury product, and will always be expensive. Fortunately, a little goes a very long way, and under refrigeration, bottarga has a shelf-life of nearly a year. Should you find some in your local gourmet store or high-end fish shop, look to see where it comes from - it could very well be Brazilian.

In the next post here on Flavors of Brazil I'll include a typical Italian recipe for bottarga on pasta.


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