Bottarga Benefits

27 Jul 2007

It is incredible to think that the Sahara desert was once fertile land suitable for agriculture and nothing like the vast empty expanse it is now. It is a reminder that many fertile areas of the planet are under increasing pressure and shrinking in size. The desert is conditioning the lives of people living in these regions, as for example in Mauritania, where 60% of its area is sand which is on the move towards the sea.

The people who inhabit this Islamic state have a deep-rooted nomadic culture—even the capital Nouakchott, with its 700,000 inhabitants, looks more like a huge encampment than a metropolis. The ancient culture persists: many of the inhabitants—who moved in mass following the great droughts of the 1970s which convulsed the country and made it even poorer—take their tents out into the desert at the weekends and sleep there.

A country in this situation would be expected to look to the sea and its resources, which are plentiful along this coast. But Mauritanian culture has always looked down on fishing, because nomads are supposed to live off cattle. However, the economic collapse of thirty years ago has focused attention on the revenue that could be earned from the sea, and it would seem to be one of the best sources of income for a country where it is now so hard to live. Yet as in many other parts of the world, the large foreign fishing vessels monopolize most of the catch and not much is left for the locals.

There is one ethnic group which has always had a symbiotic relationship with the sea however: the Imraguen, inhabitants of the northern coastline along the Banc d’Arguin, a national park composed of shallow waters, channels created by the currents and small islands ideal for migratory birds. The Imraguen have all the skills and traditions needed to make the most of the waters teeming with fish which lap against their desert land. The men do the fishing—they are the only ones with permits to use lanche, sustainable traditional boats without motors—and the women transform, dry, salt, cut and extract oil. The menfolk do not just use boats but also fish on foot, as is the case for mullet: the fish are caught when dolphins push the fish towards nets placed close to the shore. Women wait for the fish to be brought onto the beach and buy it, also processing it into many traditional fish products, including excellent mullet roe (bottarga).

This product could symbolize a recovery. It is partly sold on the local market but is more often bought by large companies for export: it is sold in Europe for ten times as much as the Imraguen are paid. A local NGO, Mauritanie 2000, wants to reverse this situation and ensure that the benefits from this activity remain with local people. By training the women, helping them into work and granting microcredits, they want to find more profitable market opportunities, improve quality and introduce suitable equipment. The Slow Food Foundation will give assistance in this effort—for example in October there will be a visit to Italy as part of an exchange with the fishermen of Orbetello, producers of some of the best Italian bottarga.

Does it seem right that when we grate some bottarga onto our pasta it might actually be from Mauritania although sold as Italian, thus damaging the communities of African fishermen and processors as well as our own? Would it not be better if the bottarga were labeled as an Imraguen product, if there were fewer middlemen and more money for the producers, if healthy differences could lead to mutually beneficial growth? It would be in everyone’s interests: the Imraguen, Italian fishermen and also the consumers grating it on their pasta. Just the import-export businesses would see their fat earnings curtailed. And it would not be such a dire problem, they would certainly not starve.

This is the crazy situation brought about by a global food market that does not respect the communities that produce with such great effort. Mauritania already has enormous problems and its people are suffering. I think that helping them to regenerate and use some of their traditional resources to the maximum extent possible is the least we can do. It isn’t so much an act of generosity but rather in the nature of restitution—giving them back their ancient roots, their dignity and everything that we basically took away from them.

First printed in La Stampa on April 23, 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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