Mullet of Orbetello is one of many products that can be found in Italy, but comes from a very small area and is known by very few lucky people.
Orbetello is a small, picturesque village in southern Tuscany founded by the Villanovians who predated the Etruscans, as demonstrated by its walls, and overlooks a lagoon teeming with fish. One of these typical fish is mullet, from which the caviar of Orbetello is transformed into precious “bottarga” as well as mullet fillets.
Bottarga, the crown product of the lagoon, is essentially salted and dried mullet roe, and the fillets, a less precious by-product, are salt cured with the addition of spices and chilli pepper. An interesting ingredient of Tuscan cuisine, this ancient method for preserving fish probably originates from the influence of Spanish domination, when Orbetello was capital of the State of the Presidi between 1557 and 1707.
The lagoon has a fragile balance, and some species are endangered. The fishermen, who created a co-op, use “sustainable” fishing techniques like fish basins.
As a result of these interesting techniques, the fishermen have been involved in a project with the Italian Slow Food association since 2004 to create a series of international exchanges with other organizations.
To better describe what Slow Food is and what it does, I’ve taken a direct quote from the UK Slow Food website: “Slow Food was initially founded by Carlo Petrini and a group of activists in Italy during the 1980s with the aim of defending regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life. In over two decades of history, the movement has evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognizes the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture”.
The cooperation between the association and the producers aims to promote the protection of foods at risk of disappearing given the gradual standardization of markets as well as defending local gastronomic traditions through biodiversity projects, and the mullet of Orbetello is now safeguarded by Slow Food.
I was introduced to this interesting ingredient thanks to a marine biologist friend who knows the area well.
This photo shows an unusual and very mouth-watering appetizer: stewed beans with mullet and Guttiau bread, a Sardinian bread that I brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and grilled in the fireplace. I simply stewed the beans with garlic and a twig of rosemary, but I did not add salt, since the mullet is already very salty.
The most common use for the mullet is to slice it thinly and soak it in olive oil for at least 20 minutes, to rehydrate the fish, which can then either be placed on slices of grilled bread, or on beans, to create some fantastic crostini.