Τhough I was raised in a non religious middle class family, the consumption of special Lenten foods didn’t differ from other middle class housholds, apart from the fact that it had to do with folk rituals rather than religion.
When I was a child, crab meat, black caviar, botargo, taramas, taramosalata, halva, date palms and coconuts were the sine quibus non of the Cretan urban Lenten diet. I remember my father putting caviar on a thin slice of toasted bread, asking me to hold the bite into my mouth for a moment and feel the fresh sea fragrance and the funny texture.
That caviar was coming from Evros, a river flowing into the Thracian sea (N. W. Greece), which sustained a small fishery and caviar canning operation of sturgeon (Acipenser sturio L.). Overfishing, reduction and pollution of Evros’ waters caused devastation to sturgeon populations and the collapse of caviar industry, in 1975. One year before the collapse of fishery, the military dictatorship had fallen in Greece, so, pretty soon the imports of Russian caviar began. However, it was unaffordable delicacy for most Greeks. Hence the consumption of the precious black eggs was limited to only the most special occasions. Of course, we still eat halva, date palms, coconuts, tarama and botargo ( though a costly delicacy too).
Being luxury or not, fish roe is regarded as the characteristic food of Lent. This paradox of fasting from fish but not from fish eggs is not quite similar to the paradox of the prohibition of wine and olive oil (though grapes and olives can be eaten). Wine and olive oil are not allowed during fasting because they are processed foods and they afford pleasure -moreover, you can drunk on wine- but why is the consumption of taramas, caviar and botargo not forbidden? Aren’t they processed fish eggs, don’t they afford pleasure? In the late 18th century, the scholars of Greek Enlightenment–an intellectual movement that combined Western liberal thought with ancient Greek spirit- emphasized that this form of fasting had no logic. But the tradition was stronger. During Ottoman occupation, these paradoxes were encouraged by the Orthodox Christians who lived among Jews, Muslims and Catholics. Their traditional fasting practices were linked not only to religious beliefs but also to ethnic behaviors. In other words, they were an affirmation of cultural identity.
Black caviar is considered the best quality of fish roe, avgotaraho (botargo)- the salted, dried and wrapped in wax, ovary of female cephalus- is an expensive delicacy, and taramas- the salted and aged roe of cod or carp- is the poorest quality. All of them are greatly appreciated.
The appreciation for fish eggs is traced back to antiquity. However, Byzantines became familiar with the word caviar no earlier than 9th century. As for botargo, the physician Symeon Seth mentioned it in the 11th century (Properties of Foods, p. 125)*; it “should be avoided totally”, he noted. Of course, his contemporaries rejected his advice.
The consumption of caviar, botargo, taramas- foods which are not “real” foods but delicacies- was social indicator in Byzantine society. Taramas was consumed by the poor, while black caviar was imported for the aristocrats, the wealthy and the notables. Monks of highest degree or of noble origin were also enthusiastic eaters of caviar and botargo. In 11 and 12 th centuries, the monks of higher status were fasting during Lent on oysters, clams, crabs, squids, lobsters, botargo, and black caviar imported from Tanais (Don) on the sea of Azov (Black sea) or from Caspian Sea.
Although this trend in Greek fasting diet continued in Ottoman times, in the late 18th century black caviar became affordable to common people. Ioannis Varvakis**- a Greek whose business issues were related with systematic production, conservation, standardization and trade of caviar- became the first major international black caviar leader. “He exported so much caviar to Greece in the late 1780s that he had to employ thousands workers.” (Saffron, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, p. a:64, 2001) As Thomas Smart Hughes pointed out, in Ioannina (N.E. Greece) in 1830 ” Botargo, which is the roe of the red or grey mullet, and caviar, which is that of the sturgeon, imported from the Black Sea, is much relished, especially during the season of religious fasts.” (Travels in Greece and Albania, vol. II, p. 24, 1830). And Christopher Wordsworth, describing the commodities with which the Athenian market was supplied in 1832, mentions barrels of black caviar, among other things. (Athens and Attica, Journal of a Residence there, by Cristopher Wordsworth, 1834, 2004).
The sources also mention imports of red caviar from Constantinople, the Black Sea and the coasts of Asia Minor. The taramas merchandised in the Aegean islands was mainly made from eggs of cheap fish.
But four years before the World War I, the caviar consumption was reduced. Most of the famous Russian caviar was consumed locally and the exported eggs became very expensive: “The long fasts enjoined by the Orthodox Church lead to a very large consumption of salt fish and caviar — not the Astrakhan caviar, which is as costly as in England — but red caviar, which is imported in tubs. This is pounded with garlic and lemon juice into what is called tarama salata and is eaten with oil. It is a distinctively Greek dish”. (Ferriman, Z. Duckett, Home life in Hellas, Greece and the Greeks p.181, 1910)
Τhe Russian black caviar had become again a perishable delicacy, a status symbol.
Ioannis Albanis’ Colonial shop in New York.
He sold: Black caviar, smoked tongue, taramas, botargo, octopus, smoked grey mullet, halva, tahini, honey, okras, aubergines, peppers (from Florina), bulbs, olive oil, olives, cheece.
Caviar salad (Chaviarosalata, Χαβιαροσαλάτα)
“Crush an onion (in a mortar), add black caviar, one boiled cooled and puréed potato, bread soaked in water and squeezed dry; stir constantly till the mixture becomes thick, add some olive oil and vinegar while stirring , add some lemon and olive oil, decorate with parsley and serve.” (Alexiades B., Megali oikogeneiaki mageiriki & zaharoplastiki, 2nd ed. 1905)
Smoked herring roe spread
(Chaviarosalata kapnistis rengas, Χαβιαροσαλάτα καπνιστή ρέγγας)
1/3 cup smoked herring roe
2 spring onions (white part + 3cm green)
1 small onion
1 small spring garlic (white part)
2 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and puréed
2 tsps wine vinegar
3 tbs lemon juice
1/2 – 3/4 cup virgin olive oil
In a food processor put all ingredients except potatoes, olive oil and lemon juice, and blend. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the potato puree and half of lemon juice. Stirring constantly add the olive oil slowly. Taste when the oil has been absorbed and add more lemon juice if you like.
The roe of lobster, sea urchin, octopus, salmon, sardine, mackerel, herring, sea bream and several other fish is considered a delicacy. The roe can be eaten fried, baked or roasted over charcoal embers. If the roe is small, it can be cooked inside the whole fish.
This roe has been cooked inside the grilled mackerel. It was served sprinkled with pepper and drizzled with lemon and extra virgin olive oil. If you prefer a more robust taste substitute the extra virgin olive oil for slightly bitter green olive oil.
*Botargo < Gr. avgotarahon < ᾠοτάριχον < ᾠóν ‘egg’ + τάριχον ‘pickled fish’.
**Varvakis financed the building of Athens’ closed central market, the Varvakeios Agora.