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 secondby Alex Renton / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
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,…