La Poutargue

'Boutargue', an amber-coloured jewel fished on the shores of Martigues...

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If there is one speciality found more or less throughout the Mediterranean basin, it has to be 'Boutargue' (spelt with a 'B' if you're from Provence or a 'P' if you're from Paris – no matter, everyone knows what it is). If you like salty seafood flavours, you'll simply love this extremely-refined fish roe, which is salted before being dried and smoked.

Originating from the Mugil Cephalus – commonly known as mullet -, Boutargue was already a coveted delicacy in Ancient Egypt. Today, it is savoured from Turkey to Portugal and Algeria to the shores of Greece, where it is sometimes used to make taramasalata.

The first trace of 'Boutargue' in French gastronomy dates back to the 16th century and Rabelais' portrayals of the great feasts of Pantagruel and Gargantua. In the early 17th century, when Henry IV still reigned over the kingdom, a doctor spoke of "salted and dried mullet eggs that make one thirsty". In 1770, the "Dictionary of Trade & Commerce" explained in great detail that "it is made at 8 leagues from Marseille, at a place named Martegue".

Fishing is now strictly regulated to fight against dwindling mullet stocks in the Mediterranean and imported mullet roe, in particular from Mauritania, is currently widely-used. From July 1st to the end of the following month of February, fishermen catch the fish when they leave 'Etang de Berre' to join the sea, using horizontal nets. The females are then separated from the group and the roe is extracted using a simple but delicate technique. The operation consists of retrieving the roe without tearing its protective membrane and leaving a piece of flesh from the tail end of the fish - the pècou in Provencal dialect – which is used to hang the 'Boutargue' while it is being dried and smoked...

Genuine 'Boutargue' comprises two pouches that must never be separated: they are rinsed in fresh water to clean them before being salted. This operation is vital to their proper conservation. 6 to 8 hours later, the roes have already lost a third of their weight due to dehydration. Placed on wooden grates, the 'Boutargue' is then left out in the sun, to concentrate its aromas and tastes and bring out its full strength and richness. Last but not least, it is then hung for several days to set the taste definitively.

If you're buying 'Boutargue', make sure it has a pretty honey colour; the amber hue of the first days gradually gives way to a darker and darker colour until the product turns black. Just like fine wine, 'Boutargue' gets better with age. If it is hand-made, it is presented in its natural skin, while industrial producers dip it in food grade paraffin wax to protect it during handling and from oxidation. However, ensure this white coating is as thin as possible if your 'Boutargue' is sold by weight...

The number of 'Boutargue' fishermen and producers has melted like snow in the sunshine and today, out of the twenty or so artisans that brought this speciality of Martigues to fame, only three family firms continue to perpetuate the time-honoured tradition.

'Boutargue' should be cut into thin slices to reveal its many subtleties (remove the wax layer if necessary of course). It can be relished on its own on a simple slice of buttered bread, grated onto tagliatelle, or added to scrambled egg, rather like truffles. Some like to use it in their risotto recipe. And of course, it is also worshipped at the aperitif with the same deference as holy bread at mass, paired with a glass of Côtes de Provence white wine... On days when the Mistral is blowing, as you turn the corner of a little lane in the Vieux-Martigues historic quarter, you may well hear the wind whispering the names of Lepra or Ortiz – two of the last families of fishermen to uphold this magnificent heritage.

"When he was very young he ate boutargue – dried mullet roe –, delicious but rather strong-tasting. Tunisia offered him sunshine, blue skies, sandy beaches and football games with his mates! Yves was happy!"
'L’enfant et la boutargue' by Yves Taïeb, published by L’Harmattan.

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