It is made at various places throughout the Mediterranean. Martigues (a city in the French département of Bouches-du-Rhône in Provence), Corsica and Greece were historically centres of production, but now they are being challenged by Brazil, Mauritania and Tunisia. In Greek, it is called “Avgotaharos” (in Greek, “avgo” means “egg” and “tarihos” means “preserved by salting.”) Poutargue is sometimes referred to in France as “caviar provençal” (caviar from Provence.)
Poutargue is extremely similar to the Italian Bottarga, even in the name. It differs from Bottarga in that Bottarga can also be made from tuna fish roe, and that Bottarga is sold in different forms: in plastic wrap, ground, or packed in olive oil.
Egg pouches (actually a double egg pouch) are cut whole from female grey mullet caught in July or August. Fishermen feel each fish caught individually to see if their egg sacs are ready.
The pouch has to be very carefully extracted from the fish so that it’s not separated or cut in anyway. Then, it is washed and put on a bed of coarse salt for 6 to 8 hours. This both draws out water and makes an inhospitable environment for bacteria. Then it is rinsed, and put between two planks of wood, then placed under weights to press the water out and flatten it.
It is then dried in the open air for 3 to 6 days, then hung to dry. Sometimes also smoked during this drying time.
The eggs inside the pouch end up a dark honey colour, having lost 1/3 of their weight during the process.
The pouches are then usually sold whole. Artisanal production sells them as they are, just in the thin transparent skin of the egg pouches. More commercially, they are sold covered in wax to give them a storage life of several months. Usually paraffin wax is used, but bee’s wax is also being used now, particularly in Greece.
A whole Poutargue will weigh around 7 to 10 oz (200 to 300g); though commercial ones (in wax) tend to be around 150g. You can buy a whole one, or some of one cut into pieces and packed in olive oil.
Poutargue is expensive. 2005 prices were about 85 to 140 euros a kilo, depending on its provenance, whether you bought it in a market or a fancy store, and whether it is the “artisanal kind”, or just the dried pouch sold on its own, or whether it’s sold in wax, which will be cheaper.
To use Poutargue, you remove the wax on it, if any, and slice it thinly.
You don’t salt and pepper it, though some like a squeeze of lemon on it. Jews like it with blini and sour cream.
- can be served as an appetizer with a glass of pastis;
- can be grated on pasta;
- can be used in a pasta or to flavour sauces, or on its on own toast or crackers;
- as an appetizer, could be served on a bed of mushrooms with small amount of sauce of some kind.
Unopened, Poutargue can be stored in the refrigerator, but should be used within 10 months to a year.
Poutargue has been made from the 1500s onwards.
The process to make it has been the same since at least 1782, at which point in time it was described by a writer named Pierre-Jean-Baptiste in his “Histoire de la vie privée des français depuis l’origine de la nation jusqu’à nos jours.”
Some French food writers try to trace Poutargue’s origin to Spain, while its having origins in Italy (see Bottarga) would be just as plausible. Given though that the Romans dried salted fish eggs, it may have been a shared heritage at various parts of what had been the Roman colonies on the Mediterranean. The Romans themselves got a taste for this from the Greeks.
Some trace the origin of Poutargue in Greece back to Byzantium but in fact goes back to the Roman times.
The south coast of France, where Martigues is, was a Greek colony.
In the 1800s, Poutargue was not considered an expensive product, and was eaten by the fishermen themselves.
Poutargue is also called “boutargue” in French, and in that form of its name, the relation to the Italian Bottarga, to which this product is virtually identical, becomes obvious.
Some feel the word “Poutargue” comes directly from the name for a female mullet in French, “poutarguier.”