NIGELLA Lawson and Samuel Pepys make strange bedfellows but what bizarrely bonds them is a fondness for Bottarga, salted and cured grey mullet roe. Unique, it’s often dubbed the ‘truffle of the sea’.
Reaching its apogee in Sardinia but relished as a delicacy across the world (the Japanese sake snack version is called karasumi), a not inexpensive tranche of it lies well wrapped in my fridge, where it will keep for months. That’s if I can resist grating it over pasta with clams, Nigella’s fave, or shaving it onto bruschetta for a funky, umami fix. Think dried anchovies on steroids, Visually it bears an odd orangey resemblance to Spanish quince paste membrillo – until you sniff its underlying fishiness.
Sardinians just can’t resist what they cll bottarga di muggine. My esteemed restaurant critic oppo Ruth Allan tell me she encountered bottarga grated over a Caprese salad of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil at Sardus Cucina in Altrincham; when I visited island exiles Giovanni and Salvatore diverted me with other distinctively Sardinian treats – Coratella (chicken livers and chestnuts stewed in Vernaccia di Oristano fortified wine) and malloreddus, (tiny shell-like gnocchi served with tomato and pork sausage ragu).
Though it made it difficult to venture as far afield as South Manchester lockdown has widened my culinary horizons in many ways. Thus I chanced upon bottarga via two books – Ms Lawson’s ravishing Cook-Eat-Repeat and the great Pepys Diaries. After enjoying Claire Tomalin’s biography of the great Sam I dipped into entries across the early 1660s and very jolly they were.
Take this from Wednesday, June 5, 1661: “After dinner to the office where we sat and did business, and Sir W. Pen and I went home with Sir R. Slingsby to bowls in his ally, and there had good sport, and afterwards went in and drank and talked. So home Sir William and I, and it being very hot weather I took my flageolette and played upon the leads in the garden, where Sir W. Pen came out in his shirt into his leads, and there we staid talking and singing, and drinking great drafts of claret, and eating botargo and bread and butter till 12 at night, it being moonshine; and so to bed, very near fuddled.”
Contiguous with cherry-picking this superior tittle tattle (I’m a big fan of the Alan Clark Diaries, too) Cook-Eat-Repeat arrived, definitely Nigella’s best book since How To Eat. I’m proud my review of that 1998 debut was quoted on the paperback cover: “A monument to human greed”. Alas it was dropped for the recent reprint; consigning me to the dustbin of history like many a diarist rival of Pepys.
Since then, of course, Nigella has become a significant cookery writer, even for those of us not smitten by her flirtatious TV persona, pouting the likes of: “How can you resist my prodigious pavlovas?”. Like Delia she has the power to influence our ingredient shopping habits. Remember that Christmas when her advocacy of goose fat sent sales soaring?
I doubt that’s going to happen with bottarga. It’s never going to be a regular on our supermarket shelves. The same goes for lorighittas – a braided round pasta resembling a child’s bracelet, which Nigella ordered over lunch at Olivomare a small Sardinian seafood restaurant inn Belgravia to discuss the new book with her publisher. To augment the vongole (clams) botarga added its pungent, salty oomph, confirming this combo’s place in proposed print.
Following her recipe (see below) I substituted linguine and my palourde clams were sourced from the rather wonderful Wellgate Fisheries in Clitheroe.
The bottarga, nothing but the finest, came from rather further afield. Readers of this website know of my admiration for Jacob Kennedy’s Bocca di Lupo restaurant in Soho (ADD Cotechino link). Alongside the monthly changing feasts for two he’s still doing via mail order he also stocks bottarga supplied by Stefano Vallebona, whose family have been dealing in luxury Sardinian fish products since 1890.
In 1997 bottarga was the first item Stefano brought to the UK, in a briefcase to share with restaurant industry pals. His producer is one of the few on the island still using the ancient ways to salt, press and air dry the mullet roe, an ancient method brought over by the Egyptians 3000 years ago. Indeed the name derives from the Arabic word battarikh and it gets a mention in groundbreaking 15th century cookbooks by Martino de Rossi and Bartolomeo Sacchi.
Bocca sell it at £19.50 for 100g (plus shipping), similar to buying it straight from the Vallebonas’ Wimbledon-based deli, which supply top restaurants. Its website is a treasure trove of Italian and Japanese specialties.
NIGELLA’S PASTA WITH CLAMS AND BOTTARGA
From Cook-Eat-Repeat, serves one as a special treat (typical Lawson)
250g clams, bottarga enough to give 3x15ml tbs when grated (never buy pre-grated), fat clove of garlic, minced, 100g lorighittas (or linguine), 2x15ml tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1 lemon, 1/4 tsp dried chilli flakes, 3x15ml tbs dry white vermouth or wine, 1tsp unsalted butter.
Put the clams to soak in a bowl of cold water and leave for 15 minutes. Put the water on for the pasta and assemble and measure all your other ingredients. First peel back the pellicle (membrane) of the bottarga to leave about one and a half cm and grate it finely into a bowl until you have 2tbs’ worth, leaving a bit more to grate over the pasta as you eat.
When the water comes to the boil, add salt and then the linguine. Drain the clams, discarding any that are open.
When the pasta has four minutes to go get out a heavy-based pan with a lid that will fit both pasta and clams later and gently warm the olive oil in it. Take the pan off the heat and finely grate in the zest of the lemon and add the garlic and chilli. Stir for a minute on a lowish heat.
Turn up the heat, add the clams and pour over the vermouth or wine and clamp on the lid so the clams steam open. That should take a couple of minutes. Discard any clams that remain closed. When the linguine is cooked but al dente move it from its pot to the clam pan, add the butter and give everything a good shake. Leave to stand with the heat off for two minutes then stir in the bottarga and perhaps a sprinkle of parsley. A good stir and it’s ready.
So what exactly is Bottarga?
The roe sac of a fish – most commonly grey mullet (di muggine), but the more saline tuna (di tonno) has its advocates. It’s salted and massaged to expel air pockets, then pressed and dried. A laborious process but worth it. The big plus point in ancient times was its keepability. Stick it in the fridge today and it will resist rot for many months. A bit like Thai fish sauce or dried shrimp? Much subtler, more delicate. Akin to caviar perhaps. So don’t cook it though, just add at the end to pasta or eggs perhaps.
Bottarga’s premium price is down to the fact that it takes 2,300 tonnes of grey mullet to make the 150 tonnes of bottarga that is the annual consumption in Sardinia.
The sacs are washed in iced water and gently massaged by hand to eliminate any air pockets. They are then cured in sea salt, usually set in overlapping layers for a few weeks. The resulting slabs are washed again and pressed to eliminate brine and other liquids. The slabs are then transferred to a well ventilated ‘ageing room’ and laid on wooden shelves. In order to achieve a uniform drying process, they have to be periodically turned and are matured for several months depending on the size of the roe.