Story by Rupert Titchmarsh
Right up there with the White Alba Truffle in reputation and very nearly in price, Bottarga is one of the true gastronomic gems to hail from Italy. It is a very simple product born out of the need in prerefridgeration days to preserve foodstuffs using salt. Bottarga is the egg sack of certain marine fish. The roe is prepared by salting, pressing and drying for up to 6 months in cool well aired rooms. There are two types, Bottarga di Tonno (Tuna) and the more prized Bottarga di Muggine (Grey Mullet). Tuna bottarga is mostly produced in Sicily (it is sometimes referred to as Sicilian Caviar) where the now much declined Tuna fishery is based. It is grey in colour and has a stronger, saltier more robust flavour than that of the Grey Mullet. The best examples of mullet bottarga come from Sardinia.
Grey Mullet is one of the staple fish harvests all over the Mediterranean. Looked down on by some due to its distasteful habit of congregating by sewage outlets to feed, it has a lovely delicate white flesh. The Sardinians claim to have the fattest most flavoursome examples in Italian waters and the best time to harvest them is in August and September, when the hen fish are full of roe. The egg sacks are removed with the utmost care to avoid piercing; they are then salted and pressed in to the characteristic oblong shapes before drying. The finished product is amber to dark brown in colour and firm and waxy in texture. They are delicately flavoured, unmistakeably fishy but more subtle than the Tuna bottarga.
The best way to eat bottarga, which for most people is only affordable once in a blue moon, is raw. Sliced thinly and drizzled with good unfiltered extra virgin olive oil and lemon it makes a delicious, fresh and clean tasting antipasto. It also tastes, for the more profligate, wonderful with pasta. Crumble the bottarga and sauté lightly in olive oil, add chilli, parsley and lemon juice, this is then stirred into the al dente linguini. My favourite recipe however is listed in The Silver Spoon – Broccoli with Bottarga. This involves using a pestle and mortar to pound together bottarga, lemon juice, garlic, parsley, basil and tomatoes, it is then seasoned and drizzled with oil and poured over steamed broccoli (purple sprouting is best for this).
Bottarga di Muggine should be available in good Italian delicatessens and one ought to expect to pay roughly Â£90 – Â£150 per kilo. It can be bought ready grated in jars but this is to be avoided, particularly if trying it for the first time – think jarred black truffles and ready grated parmesan.
About the author: Rupert Titchmarsh used to work for Northfields meat suppliers – an institution at London’s famous Borough Market. He loves everything about food including cooking, growing your own, truffle foraging and raising pigs.