In her gorgeous monograph The Fragile Feast – Routes to Ferran Adrià, artist and photographer Hannah Collins provides a visual narrative of 30 ingredients from the kitchen of the renowned chef and visionary exponent of molecular gastronomy, detailing their passage from source to table. Among the foodstuffs whose story she tells are anemones from Cádiz, Pyrenees pines, Ecuadorean rose petals and… the Trikalinos bottarga, salted cured grey mullet roe from Messalongi, the princely (if in price and not origin) avgotaraho Messalongi.
Although sometimes referred to as “poor man’s caviar”, bottarga, available online at $125 for a half-pound stick, is anything but a peasant food these days. That said, this salty and umami-dense delicacy, like caviar, calls for the simplest preparation: thinly sliced onto toast or flatbread, or shaved over pasta, trahanas or eggs.
For the preparation of bottarga, the roe sacks are removed from the mullet, washed, and salted with natural sea salt. The salted sacks are set into casts and air-dried, and then hand-dipped into melted beeswax; the layers of wax prevent oxidation and preserve the nutritional value of the roe, including heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Although avgotaracho has traditionally been a heavily salted product, the Trikalinos bottarga has a salt content of less than 2%, enabling it to be happily paired not only with the customary tripouro or ouzo but also with single-malt whiskeys.
Trikalinos has nothing to do, of course, with the town in northwest Thessaly of the same name, since the avgotaracho is made from mullet caught in the Messolongi-Etoliko Lagoons, one of the most important lagoon complexes in the Mediterranean and part of the Natura 2000 network, but rather with the family name of the three brothers who founded the company in 1856. Under its current owner, Zafiris Trikalinos, the company made a daring move in 1997 when it opened a new production facility in Athens. On the one hand, the new premises, the first such ISO-certified facilities for bottarga production, enabled the firm to continue using traditional production techniques in the context of strenuous quality control and food safety standards. On the other hand, the move also deprived the company of the right to use the EU Protected Designation of Origin label—avgotaracho Messolongiou is one of only 7 foodstuffs in the category of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans to be awarded this label—since PDO status is reserved for agricultural products which are traditionally produced and processed and prepared entirely in a given geographical area. However, this has not proved an obstacle to the product’s acquiring a number of international endorsements, including placement with Fauchon and Petrossian, a Sial Paris distinction, a series of Athens Gourmet Awards and a Pentaward packaging design award (if only more Greek firms were aware of the importance of design and graphic identity in promoting their products abroad).
Trikalinos also produces a fleur de sel, a premium natural marine salt from the Etoliko – Messolongi lagoon prepared using traditional harvesting methods in Greece, as well as marinated anchovy and sardine fillets.
For more information on the preparation of bottarga see Diana Farr Louis’s interesting piece for the Athens News on Fishing for Delicacies in Messolonghi