The first time I ate bottarga was in a trattoria in Rome; the owner-cum-chef wasn’t overly friendly when I asked for a menu and tersely said that it changes daily because he only cooks the best and the freshest. Then he gave me three options. I learnt, that day, that in most Italian eateries it’s always best to ask what the specials are and certainly not suggest what you feel like. If you don’t like what’s on offer, there’s a door. My companions took great pleasure in my discomfort and since my Italian was non-existent in those days, they took great pleasure in telling me what I had eaten ex post facto.
To their disgust, I loved everything and particularly the expensive bottarga.
Often known as Sardinian caviar, ultra-gourmet bottarga regularly costs upwards of $30 per small jar! Made of fish roe, the delicacy dates back to ancient times, and is particularly popular in countries around the Mediterranean, where it goes by many similar names, which likely have Greek Byzantine roots, though there is some speculation about Arabic influence.
The famously southwestern Sardinian treat, which is dried and cured in salt, is commonly found in either fillet form, or grated.
Fishing for gray mullet is an August September pastime when the female fish are full of eggs; the fish is opened with immense care to avoid damaging the precious egg cargo and this is, then, salted and pressed with wooden paddles into oblong shapes. These shapes are stored for about 3 – 4 months in cool, well aired rooms and the blocks are matured until they’re firm but not too dry and are amber or even nut-brown in color with the aroma of the sea.
If you’re into finishing your culinary masterpieces with salt and parmesan (or even if you’re not), plan on adding the aromatic, richly flavored grated bottarga to your final-touch repertoire. Used as a condiment — and never actually cooked — its umami powers will elevate plates such as pasta, risotto, eggs and more.
To ease into the experience Sardinian-style, try the grated goodness sprinkled on olive oil-doused spaghetti, or go extra traditional by topping toast or crostini with olive oil, lemon, and a loving sprinkle of bottarga — then let the obsession begin.
Spaghetti con bottarga
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
- When the water boils, toss the spaghetti and cook until they are al dente.
- In a saucepan heat the olive oil.
- Peel and smash the garlic and toss it in the saucepan with the olive oil.
- Fry it over low heat for a few minutes. Once the garlic starts to change to a brownish color, remove it from the olive oil and remove the olive oil from the heat.
- Grate the bottarga in the olive oil.
- Drain the spaghetti and tip them into the pan and toss with the sauce, put into a warm serving dish.
- Top each serving plate with more grated bottarga and serve immediately.
Other seafood pasta: