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Forklore: Old fish eggs

Forklore sigIn Italian restaurants, you sometimes find dishes flavored with a red-amber sausage-like substance called bottarga. This is the salted eggs of the gray mullet, but it's nothing like caviar, which is preferably as fresh and lightly salted (malossol) as possible. These mullet fish eggs, still in the original egg sack, are salted, pressed and dried for the long haul.

They smell it too. There's an antique quality about the strong aroma of bottarga, and not just because it calls to mind dried fish and something richer and mustier, perhaps an old cheese (like those products, bottarga is definitely an acquired taste, and some people hate it). The aroma seems somehow age-old.

How appropriate. Although it's now made in Italy, France and Tunisia as well, bottarga is an ancient product of the land of the Pharaohs. Paintings on Egyptian tomb walls show people taking the egg sacks out of gray mullets (bari in ancient Egyptian; the modern Egyptians still call gray mullet by the same name, although they pronounce it buri).

Egypt has been exporting bottarga so long that the word comes (via the Arabic batarikh) from petarikhos, a multilingual term consisting of pe-, the definite article in the ancient Egyptian language, and the Greek word tarikhos, meaning "preserved." We probably shouldn't mention that tarikhos was also the Greek word for "mummy," because it will just give ammunition to the bottarga-haters.

-- Charles Perry

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