An Ancient Mediterranean Taste: France’s Boutargue


The Egyptians who fled to Marseille from Egypt after the Napoleonic debacle there  (1801) brought with them a hankering for batarekh, now called boutargue or poutargue in Provençal.

Happily, Marseille happened to be a place where they could find batarekh, a caviar-like product made from the pressed and dried roes of grey mullets (Mugil cephalus). Eaten sliced potato-chip thin with olive and lemon juice, batarekh dated back centuries to ancient Egypt. At the time that the refugees stumbled off the boat in Marseille, bearing the dead and moldering body of their leader Ya’qub Hanna, whose wife refused to bury him until their ship, the Pallas, reached terra firma, Marseille boasted at least eight producers of batarekh.

Most of those producers plied their trade in Martigues, a nearby town, somewhat rough and unsavory. Although batarekh rarely reached Paris at that time, except during Lent, according to the Dictionnaire portatif de commerce (1770), the Arabs living in Paris relied on their Marseille kin and friends to send them the coveted batarekh. Thus batarekh was a common trade item in the early nineteenth century.

And it tied the immigrants to their homeland, no doubt making the strange language and their diminished social standing more tolerable.

Batarekh likely comes from the Arabic buṭari [بطارخ ], which in turn comes from the Coptic outarakhon and from the Byzantine Greek ᾠοτάριχον [ᾠóν = “egg”+ τάριχον = “pickled fish”], which Simeon Seth – an 11th century Jewish writer – condemned in his writings.

It doesn’t take much to connect the dots and realize that because Alexandriain Egypt produced the best batarekh, again according to the Dictionnaire portatif de commerce, that this salty by-product of the ancient practice of fishing served a role beyond that of the delicacy status attributed to it today. It literally manifests the human tendency to use everything edible from nose to tail, or in this case from fin to egg. It staved off hunger and added flavor to dull grain porridges and monotonous bowls of beans.

Boutargue preserved with wax coating

Paintings on ancient Egyptian tombs show people removing the roe from buri (modern-day barri, for mullet). The practice of preserving fish like this probably dates to Byzantine times, the sixth or early seventh centuries, and most likely even before that. The seafaring tendency of many Mediterranean people, as well as the nomadic nature of others, led to batarekh. Like the venison or buffalo jerky invented by Native Americans, batarekh provided sustenance where none was to be found, at least not easily.

In Letters on Egypt: containing, a parallel between the manners of its ancient and modern inhabitants, its commerce, agriculture, government and religion; with the descent of Louis IX at Damietta. Extracted from Joinville, and Arabian authors, Volume 1 (1787, translated from the French), Claude Etienne Savary wrote:

The Bourri, or mullet, is the most beneficial of all to the fishermen, who open the females, and take out the roe, of which they make boutargue, by salting, and vend it through all Egypt. The various outlets of the lake to the Nile and Mediterranean being full of islands, rushes, insects, and herbs, the river and sea-fish swarm and multiply here infinitely; supplying two thousand fishermen, and clouds of birds, without apparent diminution. Nature has done so much for Egypt that the fecundity of its earth and waters is inconceivable; wherefore has it ever been a nursing-mother to neighbouring nations. They salt the roe, and dry it in the sun; it is a food well known to the sailors of Provence.

Fishermen first gutted the female fish and gently massaged the delicate sacs by hand to get rid of air pockets between the eggs. Adding salt came next. Then they flattened the sacs between planks of wood and sun dried the sacs for up to 2 months. Covered with a coating of beeswax to preserve them, the sacs – if dried sufficiently – lasted nearly forever. By the time the drying process ended, the roe lost about 35% of its total mass. Cathy Kaufman provides a recipe for making it from scratch in her Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series: Cooking Up History)  (see pages 67 -68).

Photo credit: Amelia

You can see this in the following poem from Familière Description du tres vino porratimalvoise et tres envitaillegoulmente royaume Panigonnois, mystiquement interpreté l’Isle de Crevepance, influenced by the myth of Cockaigne, with its overtones of hunger dreams reminiscent of World War II concentration camp survivors, as well as the work of François Rabelais. The common denominator in all these meats is salt …

By the streams running with such excellent wine,

Little by little one sees

Corned beef, boutargue, and hams.

And, oh yes, rumor had it that batarekh possesed aphrodisiac properties.

If you find some boutargue, and you might under the Italian name bottarga, just grate it on some hot pasta or cut it in thin slices and eat with bread, olive oil, and squirts of lemon juice. Never, ever, cook boutargue.

For more on boutargue, see:

Bates, Oric. Ancient Egyptian Fishing. Harvard African Studies. 1: 265, 1917.

L. Keimer. La boutargue dans l’ancienne Egypte. Bulletin de l’Institute Francaise de l’Egypte. 21: 215 – 43, 1938 -1939.

Note: Thanks to a timely Julia Child Fund grant underwritten by the generosity of  IACP’s The Culinary Trust, I will be able to post a lot more first-hand accounts after autumn of 2011, because I’ll be on location in France, studying the impact of immigrant cuisines on the future of French cuisine.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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