History and Importance of Grey Striped Mullet
July 28, 2016Located an hour south of Tampa, the coastal village of Cortez is the oldest continual fishing village in Florida. The waters surrounding the fishing village are known for having the finest Grey Striped Mullet in the world. For centuries fisherman here have harvested mullet, a fish typically smoked or deep-fried. When the roe of the fish is removed and cured, it is then marketed as bottarga, a Gulf delicacy with a lineage spanning more than a dozen centuries and five continents.
For decades, Gulf of Mexico mullet was exported to Europe and Asia to be processed into bottarga, or Karasumi and Myeongran, as it is known in Japan and Asia. Recognizing a local sustainable resource, Seth Cripe founded the Anna Maria Fish Company with Ed Chiles. The company has gained international acclaim for producing some of the world’s finest bottarga; which Chiles describes as “the ultimate sustainable seafood”, wholesaling in the range of $3.00/lb.
Sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s caviar”, Egyptian murals from the 10th Century B.C. depict fisherman executing the lengthy process of producing the delicacy that is bottarga. 11th Century Greek writings of Samuel Pepys laud it as an amazing hor d’oeuvre to be enjoyed with the finest wine. The Italian name bottarga can be dated circa 1500, where is appears in Bartolomeo Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate, one of the earliest printed cookbooks.
Cripe and Chiles began producing bottarga in 2007, embarking on a mission to bring a taste of Cortez and Anna Maria Island to the world. Cortez Grey Striped mullet is sustainable and rated “best choice” by the Seafood Watch program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“Cortez is located on the northern edge of Sarasota Bay adjacent to Anna Maria Island,” explained Chiles, a 6th generation Floridian with an avid love for Florida and its outdoors. “It was founded by settler from North Carolina in the 1880s, and named after the explorer Hernando Cortes. Today, Cortez is one of the few Florida fishing villages that has been able to retain its cultural integrity, and we are determined to help keep that heritage alive.”
An Anna Maria Island native, Cripe’s interest in the project stemmed from his desire to support his childhood friends’ and family’s way of life as fisherman and local restaurateurs. “There’s something special about the local fisherman’s lifestyle and connection with nature that is embedded in this community and we want to help maintain that for generations to come. This area was founded on fishing for mullet and there are Spanish writings from the explorers in the 1500’s that speak of the area natives drying fish and golden mullet roe sacs out in the sun. Striped Grey Mullet and its roe are such a deep part of our history and environment on the Gulf Coast and it to be honored as such.”
Working alongside Cripe’s mother Nancy and his brother Mic at their Manatee County facility, Cripe says the product has garnered a lot of interest with chefs and foodies in the past years as the local food movement has exploded in the U.S. “We started the company with the goal of adding value to the local community and fishing industry by processing the mullet roe into the finished product of bottarga and changing the business model from a commodity based market to a value added one. The interest from many of the nation’s top chefs and food writers was an added bonus and a direct assurance that we’ve been on the right path.”
Just as it has been done for centuries, crews of white-booted workers shovel the Gulf mullet from flat-bottom skiffs onto a conveyor belt where workers sort the fish by sex. The roe harvested from the females yields a product that glows with a deep golden color and packs a savory taste.
Recognizing a sustainable resource and an opportunity to implement a value added business model to a Historical Florida fishing village, Chiles says “making bottarga here” is an important first step toward creating new markets for mullet. “This product shouldn’t be frozen, shipped overseas and processed months later into bottarga and then sold back to the U.S. and Europe for as much as $200.00/lb. We can produce a premium, ultra-fresh bottarga here with a cleaner taste and a more golden color. It is some of the best in the world – hands down.”
Cripe and Chiles now produce more than 5,000 pounds of Cortez Bottarga annually. The roe sacs are salted, pressed, and sun-dried in an Italian style native to the Tuscan and Sardinian regions, where cooks use a grate of the delicacy to finish many of their pasta dishes.
“We are committed to producing only natural, high quality products while growing the local fishing economy and helping preserve its livelihood for the enjoyment of future generations,” said Cripe, who splits his time between Florida and Napa Valley, California where he is an experienced winemaker and founder of LOLA Wines. “We produce bottarga in the same way as our wines in Napa – with minimum handling, preserving the freshness every step of the way to ensure top quality.” And the critics agree. A New York Times article on Anna Maria Fish Company’s bottarga by southern food writer and historian John T. Edge describes the rapidly changing “cutting edge” culture of Southern food. Edge goes on to say that “Florida cured bottarga exemplifies that dynamism, with the potential to transform the regional fish industry and make an impact on restaurant menus around the country.”
For Cripe and Chiles, bottarga is only the first step toward creating new markets for Gulf mullet. Fish emulsion fertilizer that can lend nitrogen to the soil for viticulture can be made from mullet carcasses. Smoked mullet fillets cooked over smoldering buttonwood show potential in the foodie scene and locals alike. A few small Cortez companies already sell the product to locals.
“We saw a need,” says Chiles. “We saw a community that is an integral part of our important Floridian heritage that was struggling, and a product we are 100% capable of producing and branding in the U.S., in the villages of Cortez, being exported and done so overseas. This is what the future is about for us at the Anna Maria Fish Company, taking the best sustainable products from our waters, producing them locally to add value to our local community and economy, and then sharing them with the world.”