FISH ROE

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).

Fish roe for taramas
Fish roe for taramas

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

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.

p240809_1136

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.

 

Mackerel roe

avgotaraho

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.  

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23 thoughts on “FISH ROE

  1. We don’t fast in our family, and ironically I associate taramasalata with Easter dinner. I’ve never eaten lobster’s roe, I’ve always avoided it; I know for a fact that the roe of smelts tastes like ear wax, and sometimes lends the fish a bitter taste as well (which is unfortunate, because smelts have a lovely sweet flavour normally).

    Love black caviar, but it’s not something I would go out and buy, due to the expense.

  2. Mariana, I’d like also to add that I had found the famous expensive Iranian black caviar equally expensive even in the Tehran airport “duty free” state little shop, which was to some extent unexpected, since for an average western tourist wallet the standard of living in Iran is indeed cheap (actually, carpets and caviar there follow their own price lists). Its high price plus the long return flight (cold conditions were mandatory) prevented me from buying even a tiny glass jar.
    Well, another inspiring post of yours that combines everything!!!

  3. i was raised in a religious envorinment, in similar ways to many greek immigrant households in the diaspora, and the lenten food as you describe it here is pretty much what my mother prepared for those periods – fish roe was a very important part of it; we also bnought that very expensive avgotaraho that looked like a dry sausage and was cut in slives – very salty, but delicious

  4. Μα τι σύμπτωση:

    “Μετά τον ‘Ελ Γκρέκο’, ο Ιωάννης Βαρβάκης. Ο Γιάννης Σμαραγδής ετοιμάζεται πυρετωδώς για τη νέα του υπερπαραγωγή (“Ο Θεός αγαπάει το χαβιάρι”) με ήρωα τον εθνικό ευεργέτη της Ελλάδας, αλλά και της Ρωσίας, Βαρβάκη, ο οποίος έκανε μόδα το χαβιάρι ση Δύση. Ακολουθώντας τα ίχνη του και τους απογόνους του σε Ρωσία και Ελλάδα, ο σκηνοθέτης γύρισε έναν ντοκιμαντέρ με τίτλο ‘Αναζητώντας τον Ιωάννη Βαρβάκη’, στο οποίο εμφανίζεται και ο ίδιος.”

    Αυτά διαβάζουμε στη σελίδα Σινεμά (σελ. 9) του σημερινού ένθετου “Επτά” της Ελευθεροτυπίας σχετικά με το τι θα προβληθεί στο φετινό Φεστιβάλ Ντοκιμαντέρ Θεσσαλονίκης-Εικόνες του 21ου αιώνα {12-21 Μαρτίου, “Ολύμπιον”, “Παύλος Ζάννας”, Λιμάνι}.

  5. Stamatia,
    # You are not the only one who eats taramosalata on Easter dinner. Almost every Greek restaurant serves it as meze all year round (Easter is included).
    # Black caviar is extremely expensive, but its farmed type is more affordable.
    #I like cooked or fried lobster roe. Perhaps you should give it a chance.

  6. Giorgo,Caspian caviar was always expensive, but now the price is even higher due to its limited supply. It is also claimed that the taste of Iranian caviar is more complex than the Russian because the water of the Iranian coastline is very cold and clear. And dont’t forget that Almas (=diamond), the most expensive and rare caviar, is coming from Iran.

  7. Maria,
    #The old Greek cookbooks advise women to serve makaroni with botargo (instead of cheese)during Lent.
    #As a child I loved caviar but I hated botargo. Now i appreciate both of them. 🙂

  8. Σύμπτωση πραγματικά, Γιώργο. Ελπίζω μόνο ότι ο Σμαραγδής θα αρκεστεί στο ντοκυμαντέρ και δεν θα δούμε Βαρβάκη αλά Θεοτοκόπουλο.

  9. This was a fascinating post Mariana. I was chuckling (pardon me) when you mentioned the monk’s diet during fasting; sounds like they did not deprive themselves too much, I say!
    anyway, I had no idea caviar was so popular and I learned a lot!

  10. Tobias, most fish roes are edible.

    Joumana, the 11th and 12th centuries witnessed the ethical corruption and intellectual stagnation of monastic life. They also witnessed the social differentiation in monasteries. This differentiation was almost typical in monasteries founded by aristocrats. Most of them favoured the entry into their monasteries of people of some social standing. The impact of social status on their food choice is more than obvious.

  11. Great – this is just what I needed. I saved the brill roe from last week & froze it. The 11th & 12th century monk’s fasting rations sound more like feasting – shows how things change.

  12. James, wealthy monks’ fasting was like feasting. In Byzantium, fresh large fish, seafood and fish roe appeared as highly priced luxury food which only the very wealthy could afford. Many monks were among them.

  13. I very much enjoyed reading your post Mariana! Raised in a traditional, religious Greek household (our need to hold onto customs and traditions amplified even more by our living in New York) the common fodds consumed by Greeks in fasting were always present on our Lenten table. I too, however, could never understand how fish eggs could be eaten when the fish itself could not. Or how olives could be eaten when olive oil could not. Furthermore, so many individuals have found so many alternatives to the foods they cannot eat when fasting (i.e. margarine in place of olive oil; soy “milk” instead of milk) that to me it really defeats the purpose of fasting in the first place!

    I did not know much of the information you provided on fish roe–thank you for all the rich facts!

  14. Moreover, this practice of “alternatives” had serious economic effects. Fish roe and olives became very, very big business.

  15. χαβιάρι ευχαριστώ δεν θα πάρω, αλλά ο ταραμάς εδώ στο χωρίο τρώγεται συνέχεια.

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