Local mullet catching on
Cindy Lane | Sun
Bottarga, made from mullet roe, is produced
in this Cortez shack and shipped worldwide.
CORTEZ – Mullet has been the staple food of Cortez for more than a century, served at everything from fishing festivals to church cookouts to family dinners.
Finally, the rest of the world is catching on, according to restaurateur Ed Chiles.
Once locally considered the poor man's fish, mullet is gaining popularity around the world, said Chiles, the operator of the Sandbar, BeachHouse and Mar Vista restaurants in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Longboat Key, where he has been serving mullet for about a year, smoked in a dip, broiled and fried.
"Mullet is wild, and it's good for you," Chiles said, adding that its local history makes it interesting to customers. "It's the ultimate sustainable seafood."
Catch statistics are not yet in for this winter's mullet season, but local commercial fishermen say it was the best in many years, despite restrictions – gill nets were banned statewide in 1995, weekends are closed on silver mullet from July 1 to Jan. 31 and there's a 50 fish per person or vessel limit on striped mullet in the Manatee River from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The season has ended, but Chiles' restaurants will begin serving mullet again when they're fat, in late summer and early fall, he said.
Mullet could easily become the next big thing, like redfish a few years back, Chiles said.
"At one time, I couldn't sell redfish. That won't happen with mullet," which already is popular in Europe and New York, and is selling for $8.95 a pound in Maine, he said.
The longtime popularity of mullet roe, or eggs, in Asia, which can cost up to $300 a pound, may pave the way for the acceptance of inexpensive mullet fillets.
Chiles partners with Seth Cripe, of Anna Maria Fish Co., who makes Cortez Bottarga in Cortez and Lola wine in California, selling the products at his eateries. They also partner with Mote Marine to sell locally-farmed Siberian sturgeon caviar.
Cortez Bottarga is mullet roe caught locally, then pressed and dried with sea salt. Known as poutargue in France and karasumi in Japan, it can be shredded over salads, pasta and even grits, which hearkens back to the way whole mullet has been enjoyed in Cortez since before Anna Maria Island was inhabited.
"It's a heritage product," said Chiles. "It's a fabulous fish."