BOTTARGA DI MUGINE
Cortez Mullet Company
BY RUTH LANDO
PHOTOS BY SALVATORE & JENNIFER BRANCIFORT
When a long-haired, laid-back, teenaged fisherman from Cortez Village named Seth Cripe fled his native environs for the Napa Valley and a career in boutique wines, little did he know that a fish that gets no respect would lure him back to the Gulf Coast of Florida.
It was the lowly mullet that enticed Cripe, now 32, back home. Scorned by fishermen as trash and relegated to a smear of smoked spread on a soda cracker, it turns out that inside the humble striped mullet (aka the grey mullet) resides solid gold. Known as bottarga in Italy, poutargue in France, karasumi in Japan and Taiwan, and avgotaraho in Greece, the fresh, embryonic sac of mullet roe, when painstakingly harvested, salt-cured, and air-dried, becomes a flaxen to dark amber colored, heart-shaped luxury, prized since the 10th century B.C.
Cortez’s prodigal fisherman tasted his first slivers of bottarga shaved into pasta by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry six years ago, and he was instantly hooked. Cripe became certified to hand-pluck the raw treasure from the sandy-bottomed Cortez waters and transform it into the world’s finest bottarga.
“I’ve known Seth for a long time and admire his food and wine knowledge; he has an incredible palate and eye,” raves Anna Maria restaurateur and Cortez Bottarga business partner Ed Chiles. Chiles already sells a good portion of the Lola Russian River Pinot Noir wines that Cripe produces, named for the adorable blind pooch that has followed the adventurer all over the globe. Both men share the vision of resurrecting Cortez’s venerable fishing industry, which was decimated by the gill net ban. They intend to keep the bottarga profits in the hands of local fishermen, rather than having all the value go to jacked-up price tags overseas.
The salty, buttery shavings of the handcured egg sac from the wretched grey mullet is an acquired taste, but when it is melted like an anchovy into an egg, bean, or pasta dish, it produces a flavor that Ed Chiles describes as “unctuous, round, and fat in your mouth.” Dr. Mehmet Oz praises Cortez’s organic, natural, chemical-free bottarga as a parmesan alternative for the lactose intolerant, and even touts its healthy, colon cancer–fighting properties.
As soon as Seth Cripe gets his little processing shed up and running at Charlie’s Fish Camp at the end of 125th Street, he plans to export an ambitious 2,000 pounds of authentic, perfect bottarga. By March 2012, the precious 2.5- to 3-ounce portions with a long shelf life and a value higher than lobster or crab, will satisfy wholesale and retail purveyors such as Gilt.com, which already sells out of every shipment. The “broad scheme,” according to Cripe and Chiles, is to expand into other products that will establish Cortez Village as the world epicenter of high-end delicacies of the sea.