Homemade taramasalata is nothing like the vile shop-bought stuff. So when I came across smoked wild cod’s roe the other day, my conscience held me up for just a second
Until the 17th century, most carrots were purple. They could also be grown in colours ranging from white to green, but the orange carrot was unknown until—according to legend—some enterprising Dutch market gardeners decided to breed them as a patriotic gesture. Why the carrots of Dutch Protestantism took over the world has never been satisfactorily explained, like so much in the history of food colouring. I’ve never, for example, heard an adequate account of why chickens in the US produce white eggs, while Britain gets brown ones. And when it comes to strange colour evolutions in foodstuffs, what about taramasalata?
Examine a packet of the pink slime that supermarkets sell in vile mockery of the great Greek meze dish, and you’ll find that it’s coloured with betanin. This is an extract of beetroot, added because supermarket taramasalatas are only 10 or 12 per cent cod’s roe. Most of the bulk is oil and breadcrumbs, so there’s not enough colour in the raw material to get it to the necessary bubblegum hue we think taramasalata should be. But we expect that colour only because, until recently, industrial smokeries habitually added dyes to make things look more richly smokey—hence orange kippers, primrose-yellow smoked haddock and brothel-pink salmon. The chemicals firm Hoffman La Roche produces the Salmofan, a fan-shaped colour chart just like those in a paint store: it allows fish producers to choose exactly what hue, from pale pink through to toxic orange, they want their finished product to wear. The richer the colour, research shows, the more consumers will pay.
Real taramasalata is nearer a pale brown than pink—a fact I’d almost forgotten until, in January, I came across something rare on the counter of the Edinburgh fishmonger George Armstrong. It was a veined flap of greeny-brown leather: for a moment I thought it was something’s tongue until I realised I’d found smoked cod’s roe—the first time in five years I’d seen any in a shop. They told me it came from the north Atlantic—almost certainly, like most wild cod these days, from boats catching off-quota in the Barents sea. When it can get it, Armstrong smokes the roe at the back of the shop, without using any dye. I looked at the roe. Conscience held me up—I don’t buy wild cod, the most grievously threatened of all our native fish—for almost a second. Somebody was going to buy the roe, and it might as well be me.
Smoked cod’s roe is gorgeous just spread on toast, with a squeeze of lemon, but it goes a lot further if you make taramasalata. Inside the leathery skin of the roe is a sticky mass of minute eggs (it used to be said that, since each cod lays an average of 5m eggs when it spawns, no human intervention could ever make a dent in the cod population). You scrape these out and give them a muscular mixing with lemon juice, olive oil, wetted white breadcrumbs and perhaps a quarter of a clove of garlic, mashed. The resulting pâté is tangy and salty, with an interesting sandy texture from the unbroken eggs. A generous taramasalata should be 70 per cent cod’s roe, not 10 per cent.
But people don’t expect their taramasalata like this—and many probably would not like the real thing. I laughed recently to read Theodore Kyriakou, a proper Greek chef—well, he runs The Real Greek chain of souvlaki bars in London—testing supermarket taramasalatas for the Observer Food Monthly. He gave Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer’s top marks, saying that M&S taramasalata “is exactly what you would get in a taverna in Greece.” I went and bought both brands, wondering if I’d missed something. But no, they were what I remembered—nasty acidic gloop, the colour and texture of the strawberry yoghurts my small daughter loves.
Clearly, though, Kyriakou is making the ethical choice. Stocks of cod are at crisis levels in all the waters around Britain and as far north as Iceland. Last October, for the fifth year running, the advisory committee on fishery management of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommended that the EU impose a total ban on North sea cod fishing, and issued dire warnings about all other Atlantic stocks. As ever, the fisheries lobby made sure EU ministers did no such thing, accepting instead new limits on the days boats can spend at sea. Short-sighted this is, but saving cod may now be beyond our powers. It is 15 years since a total ban was imposed on the Canadian Grand Banks, once the world’s greatest cod fishery. But stocks don’t appear to have recovered there.
So what hope is there for real taramasalata lovers? Farmed cod, now in its second year of commercial production in Shetland, is a real alternative to the wild thing. It tastes good and its flesh is firm. Its food is “organic.” It is almost certainly fresher than wild fish that may have lain on ice in trawlers for ten days. Its chief drawback is that at about £18 a kilo for fillets, it is twice as expensive as wild. And at the moment, Johnson Sea Farms, the producers, are harvesting the fish too young to possess roes large enough for smoking. In despair, I turn back to my Greek cookbook—and find that real taramasalata (I mean real, real taramasalata) is made with the roe of carp. Not surprising—cod don’t exactly frequent the eastern Mediterranean. Now where can I find some smoked carp’s roe? And is it pink?