The name intrigued me: poutargue. As a brand name, it would have the marketing team holding their heads in despair. When I asked a couple of French people what it evoked, one said, ‘Quaint and old-fashioned.’ The other said, ‘Disgusting.’
So I went to the Caronte Channel in Port de Bouc, some 20 miles west of Marseille, where every Friday this summer they opened the calen fishing to visitors. Calen refers to the net that stretches from one side of the channel to the other, and when the fishermen raise it, they’ve caught thousands of mullet come to spawn. Well, that’s how it used to be anyway – these days the mullet are more in the hundreds, and calen fishing is very much on the decline. But the ones they do catch suffer the same fate: sliced open for the roe to be extracted, salted and dried. The end result is poutargue, also known as the caviar of Provence.
Unfortunately, we saw none of this, because a boat was due to pass and the nets couldn’t be raised. Instead we saw Raymond, a silver-haired fisherman who explained how it’s done and showed us lots of photos. Rather a swizz, I thought, a bit like going to a concert and being shown a slide show instead. Still, being a good-natured group, none of us complained and those of us who understood what Raymond was saying listened enthusiastically. I too was enthusiastic, but apart from his accent he spoke a bit as if he had a hard-boiled egg lodged in his throat. All the same, I managed to get the gist.
The reason the mullet are waning is not due to overfishing but the water. What they like is brackish water, typically found where an estuary meets the sea, providing just the right level of salt. But in the 1960s, the balance was altered when the Durance Canal was built to bring fresh water to a hydroelectric plant nearby. As a result, there are only five calen fishing outfits left.
It may be, then, that the days of poutargue are numbered. Raymond didn’t appear too bothered, but then there’s not a lot he can do about it. In the meantime, he makes a decent living, as demand for poutargue is very strong. I think some of the visitors had come along expecting to taste some, in which case they were disappointed. If you want poutargue, you’ll have to place your order several months before and pay almost 200 euros a kilo. That’s still a long way from truffle territory, but it’s three times the price of foie gras. It seemed almost hard to believe, as we huddled on the tiny platform where the mullet are brought ashore, but poutargue is sent all over the world, notably Japan (where they know a thing or two about fish).
So what does it taste like? Well, according to Raymond, anchovies. Basically, in other words, just very salty and fishy. I couldn’t help thinking there had to be something else, a je ne sais quoi that Raymond wasn’t revealing. After all, anchovies can be bought for a quarter of the price. But Raymond wasn’t there to give a sales pitch. He was happy enough knowing that the mullet roe he prepares in Port de Bouc will end up pleasing the taste buds of a few connoisseurs in Tokyo. As for me, I made do with a couple of bream sold by some fishermen nearby. They were delicious.