CORTEZ, Fla. — For centuries, fishermen here have netted mullet, an oily fish that retails for about $1 to $3 a pound and takes well to deep-frying or smoking. But in Italy, where some of this village’s harvest is shipped, sacs of roe are removed from the fish, cured and marketed as a delicacy, bottarga, that often sells back in the United States for more than $100 a pound.
Seth Cripe, who was born 34 years ago in this coastal village an hour south of Tampa, wants to capture some of that profit for the fishermen and artisans of Cortez.
In 2007, he began salting, pressing and sun-drying the roe sacs in a style that many Americans associate with Liguria and Sardinia, two regions of Italy where cooks frequently finish pasta dishes with a quick grate of briny bottarga. Today, Mr. Cripe, working with his business partner, Ed Chiles, produces more than 1,500 pounds of Cortez bottarga each year, sold under the Anna Maria Fish Company label to a few retailers and a growing number of influential chefs.
Christopher Kostow, chef of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif., began using Mr. Cripe’s bottarga last year. “It tastes cleaner than the Italian stuff,” he said of the grated Cortez bottarga he placed atop a recent dish of broccoli flowers, agnolotti and farmer cheese. “And it’s not overly salty. Instead of cloaking flavors, it brightens and accents.”
At Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in New York, the chef Justin Smillie tosses shaved brussels sprouts with red onions, red radishes and bread crumbs before splashing the salad with colatura, the pungent Italian fish sauce, and finishing with grated Cortez bottarga, which he said “smells and tastes like the seashore.” And it’s local, he said. “Or at least a lot more local than Italy.”
At a time when the rest of the nation looks to the South as a redoubt of provincial culinary traditions, food culture in the region is actually changing in fast and often surprising ways. Bottarga cured in Florida is a vivid example of that dynamism, with the potential to transform the regional fish industry and make an impact on restaurant menus around the country.
That kind of makeover has Southern precedents. Traditional Tennessee country ham is now marketed as American prosciutto. Grits, stone-ground from heirloom corn, now earn the same respect as polenta. The best bourbon commands prices that are comparable to the best Scotch.
“Amazing products are now coming out of the South,” said Ari Weinzweig, a co-founder of Zingerman’s, the mail-order grocer in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Some were there all along, some are new, and some are examples of newly revitalized products that have emerged since America began to see new value in flavorful artisanal goods.”
Mr. Cripe’s product, wrenched from female fish after their necks have been broken, glows with a deep umber color and packs a marine umami punch.
“We want clean roe sacks,” said Mr. Cripe, standing on a dock recently as a crew of white-booted fishermen worked below, shoveling striped gray mullet from a flat-bottomed skiff onto a conveyor belt bound for the table where workers sorted the fish by sex. “If you break their necks instead of cutting off their heads, you keep blood from seeping into the roe sacks, and you get a cleaner-tasting, golden-colored bottarga.”
Mr. Cripe is not the only Southerner curing roe. Last year, Bryan Caswell, the chef at Reef, in Houston, started curing his own mahi-mahi roe and red snapper roe. In 2011, when Ryan Smith was the chef at Empire State South in Atlanta, he began curing shad roe, which he folds into butter and serves with sliced radishes.
But for Mr. Cripe — who splits his time between Napa, Calif., where he makes wines under the Lola label, and Cortez, where his mother, Nancy, works with him to cure mullet roe in a downtown facility — bottarga is just the first step toward creating new markets for mullet.
Fish emulsion fertilizer, often used in organic viticulture to lend nitrogen to the soil, can be made from mullet carcasses, he said. Smoked mullet fillets have potential, too. Cooked over smoldering buttonwood or red oak by small Cortez companies like Smoked Mullet by Gullet, they sell mostly to locals, who traditionally chop the fillets, stir them with cream cheese and serve the resulting dip with crackers.
To realize his vision, Mr. Cripe said he would have to change prevailing ideas about mullet. Even though the fish is sustainable and is rated a “best choice” by theSeafood Watch program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, mullet is often considered a down-market fish, best purchased shortly after harvest, fried hard and served on a foam plate with a fluted cup of tartar sauce.
And then there’s the name, “the haircut thing,” Mr. Cripe said, speaking of the much-ridiculed hairstyle (short in the front and sides, long in the back) immortalized in the 1980s by country musicians like Billy Ray Cyrus.
Bottarga, too, can be a hard sell here. When Mr. Cripe walked into Cortez Seafood Market, the manager, James Lee, told the young entrepreneur that he far preferred smoked mullet roe, which he sells for about $20 per eight-lobe sack. (Order a Caesar-style wedge at the Village Idiot Pizza in a Cortez strip mall, and the pizzaiolo, Joseph Yost, chars a romaine head in a wood-burning oven, then drapes it with slices of smoked roe that Mr. Lee buys from a man he calls Lurch.)
Mr. Cripe, who did not grow up eating bottarga, has endured many such moments since he tasted a dish of pasta topped with Italian-cured mullet roe at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. A light went on that night in 2007. And it was extinguished soon after, when, during a return visit to Cortez, he served childhood friends a similar dish of pasta with bottarga, based on a Martha Stewart recipe.
“They thought I was crazy,” he recalled during a recent walk down the Rod and Reel Pier on Anna Maria Island. “None of my friends would even try it.”
But Mr. Cripe, who moved to California at 17 in search of a job in the wine industry, was determined. Some restaurateurs in the Cortez area have caught on. Derek’s Culinary Casual, in nearby Sarasota, has grated Cortez bottarga over handmade pasta since 2009. Caragiulos, also in Sarasota, offers Seth’s Pizza, layered with fingerling potatoes, roasted shallots, mascarpone cheese and Cortez bottarga.
Many seemingly newfangled ideas leverage long traditions. According to exhibits on display at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez, itinerant Spanish fishermen here in the late 1700s were harvesting mullet roe, which they cured in a brine solution, preserved in lean-to smoke huts and shipped to Cuba and beyond.
Today, local wholesalers like A. P. Bell Fish Company, in business since the 1940s, freeze and ship much of the mullet roe harvest in huge containers to places like Taiwan, Egypt and Italy.Back on the dock, Justin Moore, a friend of Mr. Cripe’s since childhood, sorted the catch. To determine the sex of each fish, Mr. Moore pressed his thumb into the belly of the fish. When a squiggle of milt, which locals call white roe, emerged from beneath the anal fin, he tossed the fish in a bin full of males. When auburn eggs, which locals call red roe, came squirting out, he tossed those fish in a bin full of females.
There is a ready market for red roe. But white mullet roe will most likely prove hard to sell to consumers. The taste is milky, like a summer oyster, said Mr. Chiles, a son of the former Florida governor Lawton Chiles.
“But we can try: mullet is who we are,” he said, standing at a stainless-steel table in the kitchen at his Sandbar restaurant, experimenting with various preparations of white roe, including a crudo made with rice wine vinegar and sliced jalapeños. “They want our sandy-bottom striped gray mullet in Sardinia. They want our red roe in China. Now we have to teach people to see new possibilities in Florida.” – John T. Edge | Published: July 22, 2013 | New York Times