All a bit fishy

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.

This post is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up, as well as TJ Paris’s French Friday feature.

Lou Messugo

Le salouva vous va bien


Mayotte is 95% Muslim, but there’s one thing to be said for women’s fashion here – it’s far from drab. Though some of the younger women wear the standard western jeans and tee-shirt, most still go for the salouva, the traditional, brightly coloured costume which may or may not be worn with a headscarf, or kishali. This gives rise to a certain confusion in schools, where under French law, ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ are forbidden. These include the Muslim headscarf, which in its dull, dark, austere version is banned, but worn as a bright, colourful kishali is tolerated. The reasoning seems to be that colours = moderate, dull = extreme. There may well be an element of truth in that – the minority of extremists who every so often feel they have to kill other people don’t seem to think that life is much to be enjoyed. Given the choice, I certainly prefer a religion that glows. But as making colours a criterion in the statute book might prove tricky, the confusion is likely to continue.

In the meantime, Mayotte celebrated its tradition recently with a salouva competition.

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Contestants await to parade in their salouva

If you feel like scrolling through the 160 photos, you can vote here for your favourite:

The Shakasha Shambles


So off I went to the Boboka Primary School for my weekly Shimaoré class, thinking it would be the usual: a whirlwind of words held together by fiendish bits of grammar invented for the sole purpose of confusing me. But instead, our teacher, Gaucher – his nickname, French for left-handed, because he’s, well, left-handed – wrote the lyrics to Shakasha on the board.

Shakasha biyaya na shigoma, Ngoma zatru za zamani

Yilalihwa Mirereni ya Sufu Ali, Karibu na Malamani etc

Shakasha is a dance. So once he’d got us all singing the song, Gaucher took us out to the balcony and taught us how to do it. (i) Four steps forward, starting with left foot,     (ii) Raise right foot, clap, (iii) Three steps back, clap. There you go – simple, isn’t it? Now you know the Shakasha.

As my wife will tell you, having been subjected many times to my valiant, eager, but ultimately sad attempts at le rock’n’roll, I am the world’s worst dancer. But even I could manage the Shakasha. Or so I thought.

Because then it got trickier. You go round in a circle doing the forward – back – clap bit, and two people, alternately spaced, break out of the circle to do the steps in the middle. Then, as they’re going back to their places, the next two do likewise. So everyone does it twice, once with a partner two places to the left, once with a partner two places to the right, with just enough time in between for the intervening couple to have their go.

The result, obviously, was a mess. A sort of Blind Man’s Buff with everyone wearing a blindfold. But Gaucher was very patient, and after an hour of this, we were drenched in sweat but had just about got the hang of it. Then came the announcement: ‘You’ll be performing this in the Baobab Stadium for National Language Day.’

Cue guffaws of incredulity all round. But no, I kid you not. Just two weeks to rehearse. The song, apparently, is an exhortation to preserve Mahorais traditions. I don’t know if Gaucher realises yet that what was once a beautiful dance will henceforth be known as The Shakasha Shambles.