I have to admit that for some time I called bottarga, bottega. Finally a friend quietly suggested that maybe (she is a gentle and diplomatic soul) I meant bottarga, ‘bottega‘ she explained ‘is Italian for workshop, you don’t really want one of those with your spaghetti.’ A mild mistake I know, but I can’t help but cringe and screw my face up when I think of it because I inevitably think back to a certain supper, one of the first at which I actually felt bold enough to use my Italian in front of strangers, and I banged on about spaghetti alla workshop.
A definition is probably my best option here as I have a tendency to beat around things, bushes, recipes, the point.
Bottarga is fish roe, extracted with its membrane still intact, lightly pressed, cured in brine and dried in the sun. There are two kinds of Bottarga, that of grey mullet (bottatge di muggine) or tuna (bottarga di tonno.)
Mullet bottarga is beautifully strange and curiously shaped, like a flattened teardrop or tongue, it’s colour ranges from deep red- amber to brilliant orange- yellow. The best comes from the female thin lipped grey mullet, most notably those fished from the waters of Cabras, a lake off the western shore of Sardinia. Good mullet bottarga is hardly surprisingly, expensive, but not exclusive if bought in small quantities.
The first time I ate bottarga was in Sardinia in a trattoria near Olba, it was August and we had just spent the day on the beach, we had sand between our toes, our noses were freckled and our skin was pleasingly tight and salty. The bottarga was sliced paper thin and served with olive oil and lemon.
The flavour of good mullet bottarga is quite curious at first, my palate was confused when it encountered the first sliver. It takes a moment, at first you are not sure, the texture is a little waxy, then its melts and the flavour begins to open up in your mouth, a soft creaminess, a delicate fishy, briny, warm almost spicy sensation fills your mouth. The flavour lingers, opens up some more, a hint of something pleasingly metallic (yes, I know but I am only being honest) it lingers some more, you taste buds are at work, negotiating the soft but intense sensations of warm, spicy, salty, fishy, creamy. Finally you realise you have eaten something quite extraordinary.
Later, during the same holiday I ate spaghetti alla bottarga for the first time, the neutral base of pasta providing a perfect foil for the curiously delicious bottarga. On another occasion I ate slivers of it tossed with green salad and a small dish of warm cannellini beans topped with gratings of this amber delicacy.
Back home, this was no holiday romance, since that hot August day, we have eaten bottarga with spaghetti more times than I care to remember. We slice it thinly and squash it on hot buttered toast, it has perked up various bowlfuls of cannellini and (possibly one of my favorite ways to eat it) been grated modestly over scrambled eggs – not exactly the height of sophistication but just divine.