Passing through Athens and only a few hours to spare. Not enough time to take things in if we went sightseeing or visited museums. My friend and I decide that it would be best to wander around the streets in the city center for a while and maybe fulfill my father’s wishes. His nostalgic reflections as he said goodbye came to mind: “I’d love you to find some taramà…”.
We had learned to appreciate taramà while living in Egypt during the 1960s. Nasser had been in power for some time and there were strict import controls – which meant no Western products, particularly if American.
In fact, the markets in Cairo, especially the Tawfikìa, overflowed with fruit and fresh vegetables, freshly-caught fish and seafood, meat, all types of bread, from soft and dry flat Arab bread to imitation German, flavored with salt and cumin. The milkman came by every morning with his donkey, delivering buffalo milk, cream and butter. And together with the inevitable tea there was good coffee from the Yemen, roasted and ground for Turkish coffee or as green beans to roast and grind at home for those preferring home espresso. For foreigners, especially us Italians, the real problem was oil – the only local product was cotton oil, dreadful when raw and pretty revolting when cooked, with its typical taste and smell of sewing machine oil – our favorite cheeses, cured meats and… toilet paper.
But there was always the black market. As soon as a “special” consignment arrived, word went round and within twenty-four hours all the prospective customers would be advised: toilet paper, American shampoo, French underwear (male and female), Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, Danish Gouda, Swiss Emmental, Greek and Italian olive oil, American seed oil (the large 10 liter cans reserved by the FAO for local poor people would turn up. Past times…) So if you could pay, you could more or less get what you wanted, albeit at irregular intervals. The important thing was to carefully manage the precious supplies until they could be topped up. In any case, imports from Greece were fairly regular and while Greek shopkeepers might not always stock pork products in their shops, it was usually possible to find olives, dried salted cod, cheeses, beef sausages, salted anchovies and the delicious taramà: salted and pressed fish roe kept in small wooden casks. Some Lebanese friends had introduced us to it and since then, every occasion of some importance (preparing taramà requires a considerable quantity of high-quality oil which was in short supply for us) would always be accompanied by a small porcelain bowl full of the precious soft pink cream. All our guests loved it as much as we did.
Nowadays taramà is sold ready for consumption in glass jars, stocked on the refrigerated supermarket shelves alongside lumpfish roe, tuna and salmon pâté. You can find it in supermarkets all over Greece, France and Spain, and also specialist delicatessen in Italy. Unfortunately it is not the same as the real thing. The fish roe, in pretty small quantities, is dispersed in a base of thickeners, milk proteins, oil and colorants (an improbable fuchsia color seems to be most preferred). So anyone who has ever tasted even a single canapé of the “real” taramà will find it hard to appreciate the industrial spreads modeled on it.
In our search for real taramà we asked our taxi driver who took us from the new Venizelou airport to our hotel. A lean, sharp-featured man with thoughtful and polite manner, he readily agreed that “natural” taramà was “not ready made” and incomparably better. “Let’s try” he said, and withdrew into concentrated thought for most of the trip, half an hour of bare hills, marble quarries and houses – almost all of them, even the older ones, in a half-built state. It gave a makeshift, temporary feel, a relaxed “let’s leave something for tomorrow” suggesting a different attitude to time. Finally, after occasional conjectures that we “might be able to buy some in the smaller supermarkets” our helpful taxi driver gave us the reply: “You’ll find the best around the meat market. For sure. From Omonia Square, towards the Acropolis, in Athinà Street”.
Salted roe of gray mullet or cod, the texture of almond paste with a pink beige color and an intense but delicate aroma of preserved fish.
Recipes for salted taramà usually suggest making it as a mixture with boiled potatoes or softened bread, but the Greek shopkeeper in Cairo taught my mother to just make it like mayonnaise and this is the version I describe.
3 spoonfuls of taramà
a few drops of lemon juice to taste
olives and salad leaves as garnish
According to preference you can use just olive oil or a mixture of olive oil and corn oil.
Place the salted fish roe in a bowl. Crush it gently with a fork and begin adding a little oil as though making mayonnaise, mix and add a few drops of lemon. When the mixture is well mixed, skewer a clove of garlic on the prongs of a fork. Continue to mix and add oil and lemon until the paste is bright pink with the consistency of a thick bechamel sauce (it must not slide off the spoon).
Spread thinly on bread or crostini.
It can be served with garnish of green salad and black olives.
Elena Giovanelli is a translator and has collaborated with Slow Food since its foundation.
Giovanni Valle is a freelance writer and creative.
Adapted by Ronnie Richards