The Culture of Food and Drink


Home / World  / Cuisine  / 3 Ways to Love Bottarga, Sardinia’s Tasty Roe

3 Ways to Love Bottarga, Sardinia’s Tasty Roe

Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

Bottarga. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

“Please taste our bottarga,” the Armani-clad saleswoman said in the sophisticated produce boutique in Via Cavour in Cagliari, Sardinia’s harbor capital.

Like all the islands of the Mediterranean, Sardinia, a region of Italy, has never lost its individuality in food ways, including a version of North Africa’s couscous, fregola, and bottarga, a salt-cured, sun-dried mullet roe whose origin is said to be Tunisia.

My visit was in mid-October of last year, and the Sardinian sky was blue but the wind was icy — a reason to take shelter in a shop that most surely sells overpriced foodstuffs to tourists.

I had no intention of spending my euros on fancy olive oils or walnuts preserved in honey. But bottarga is another matter.

Proffered with smiling courtesy on the blade of a cut-throat knife was a translucent reddish sliver of the real thing — a dehydrated, wax-coated, double-lobed egg sac of gray mullet, a middle-sized, torpedo-shaped, blunt-nosed, small-mouthed, seaweed-eating, opportunist bottom-feeder that floats amiably around harbors and yacht basins throughout the Mediterranean (and, incidentally, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.). The rest of the fish is good eating, but the prize is the roe.

I tasted the bottarga, and the sliver covered no more than the tip of the tongue, but the flavor was concentrated, powerful, pungent, salty and sweet like caramelized sea spray. The texture was silky and chewy, like toffee.

Whatever the cost, I needed to have more. That’s what umami does to you — well, maybe not everyone, but anyone who’s ever tasted a perfect truffle fresh from the earth on a Tuscan hillside or eaten caviar from a silver spoon on a millionaire’s yacht. See what I mean?

“It’s — well, delicious,” I said. The woman nodded. “Of course,” she said.

She knew I was hooked. No need for her to explain that it was the new season’s supply. That the dealers come from the mainland and by Christmas it’ll be gone. That I’ll find it in other places — Sicily and Corsica, Italy; Greece; Turkey; and, of course, Tunisia — but this is the best.

I buy it. Of course I do.

So how do the Sardinians themselves like to eat their bottarga?

The woman in Armani smiles. “Perhaps with carta di musica, the thin pita breads we make in Sardinia. But for myself, I like it grated on the pasta instead of cheese. Or over a risotto or a bowl of fregola, Sardinian couscous, when the fishermen’s nets are empty. And it’s good on a salad of orange and raw onion, or with a sauce of dried figs or pistachios. Sardinian cooking is very practical. We use what we have. But best of all I like it like this — straight from the knife.”

Bottarga basics

Bottarga can be bought whole or grated in a jar, in which case you can be sure it’s dried stock from last year. In cooking, treat it as you would well-aged Parmesan — for finishing and adding a little protein to grain dishes. You can use it to prepare taramasalata, but it’ll need a good whizzing with water to soften it before proceeding with your usual recipe.

Fregola With Soffritto and Bottarga

Fregola, Sardinia’s large-grain couscous, is toasted for additional shelf life and is uneven in size and color. It’s traditional in the southern region around Cagliari (you won’t find it in the north) and has a deliciously caramelized flavor that perfectly complements the sweetness of the fish roe. If you can’t find fregola, use pasta rather than another kind of couscous.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

1 medium onion, finely slivered

2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

10 ounces fregola

3 to 4 ounces (1 wing) bottarga

Salt and pepper

For finishing:

Parsley

Lemon juice

Directions

1. Cook the onion and garlic very gently in the oil till it softens and gilds; take your time and don’t let it brown. This resulting mixture is the soffritto. Season the soffritto with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, cook the fregola (or pasta) in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender — about 10 to 12 minutes — then drain and fork it up to separate the grains.

3. Toss lightly with the soffritto and top with fine shreds of bottarga. Finish with chopped parsley and a few drops of lemon juice.

Spaghetti With Dried Figs and Bottarga

This very Sardinian combination of dried fruit and fish can be used to dress any pasta. In winter, a salad of orange segments and raw onion can be finished with bottarga.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 to 3 dried figs, soaked to swell

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

10 ounces spaghetti

1 wing of finely sliced bottarga (or 2 tablespoons grated)

Directions

1. Dice the figs and cook gently in olive oil until they soften to a cream. Season with pepper and a little salt and reserve.

2. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender but still a little firm in the middle, then drain, leaving it a little damp. Toss the figgy sauce with the spaghetti in a warm bowl and top with the bottarga.

Linguine With Pistachios and Bottarga

This is a simple combination of homegrown Sardinian ingredients. If the bottarga is very hard, soften it in a little hot oil before you use it as a dressing.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 garlic clove

2 ounces shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

12 ounces fresh linguine

Salt and pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons grated bottarga

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and fry the garlic clove till it takes a little color and perfumes the oil.

2. Add chopped pistachios and stir over a gentle heat till the nuts are lightly toasted. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water, drain and transfer to a warm serving bowl.

4. Toss the pasta with the pistachio dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper, and finish with grated bottarga.

Main illustration: Bottarga. Credit: Elisabeth Luard



Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.

2 COMMENTS
  • Martha Rose Shulman 10·21·14

    Love this piece (and drawings). Also brings back fond memories of botargue meals in Nice.

  • Julia della Croce 10·21·14

    I’m grateful you’ve written about this, Elizabeth. While Cagliari is my mother’s hometown, it’s been a long time since I’ve been there. Evocative writing, and what a treat to see all these recipes for it. As it happens, I have an unopened sac of it in my refrigerator right now, given to me by Rolando Beramendi. I’m going to have a feast.

POST A COMMENT