Tag Archive for: Pasta

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.

Samuel Pepys – too much claret and bottarga and so to bed

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.

Nigella – her bottarga dishes are among many delights in her new book

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.

Close-up of the bottarga. Grate finely and don’t over-heat

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.

Wellgate Fisheries supplied the clams for the dish below


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.

The grey mullet for the bottarga are caught off Sardinia’s rugged coast

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.

Opera has alway been entwined with food, especially Italian. We’re not talking tour riders of the stars with Pavarotti apparently demanding a 24 hour kitchen be set up next to his room with fridges packed with pasta, tomatoes and roast chickens, enough to feed 20. It was a phobia from an impoverished childhood – the big man ate comparatively moderately.

No it’s the way great names have become attached to certain dishes – Tournedos Rossini, Spaghetti Caruso, Peach Melba, Salsa Verdi. OK, I employed artistic licence on that last one. And then there is a truly terrific dish called after an actual opera. It is also one of the simplest to prepare, provided you’ve sourced the exact ingredients.

Pasta alla Norma has become the unofficial signature dish of Sicily. Invented in Catania on the east coast about the time Vincenzo Bellini’s romantic opera Norma premiered, it is said that the pasta was created as a homage. Legend has it that Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted when presented with this dish that he compared its splendour with that of the opera.

Alternatively, according to Ben Tish in his evocative cookbook, Sicilia (Bloomsbury, £26) – one of my Cookbooks of 2021 – “another story tells of a talented home cook who served her creation to a group of gourmands and was duly christened at the table via the classic Sicilian compliment of Chista e na vera Norma (‘this is a real Norma’). Whatever the truth, the dish became an instant classic and its fame spread around the world.”

At my last London review meal before the lockdowns I ate this iconic dish of rigatoni, aubergine, tomato, basil and ricotta salata, appropriately enough, at Norma, the restaurant Ben created in Fitzrovia for the Stafford Group, showcasing the dishes in his book, many with Moorish influences. He has recently moved on. I finally published my account of that memorable meal in June 2021.

Since when I’ve looked out for Pasta alla Norma on menus in my native north. Among the indies specifically offering the island’s cuisine you won’t find it at Sicilian NQ in Manchester or A Tavola Gastronomia Siciliana in New Mills, though Trinacria in York do serve it. Less surprisingly the more generic Rosso in Manchester or the PIccolino chain do not list it. Rivals San Carlo do, but substitute pecorino for the ricotta salata. A cardinal sin in Catania, even though these crumbly, grateable sharp cheeses have much in common.

Indeed, my home quest to replicate the perfect Norma has been hampered by the absence of ricotta salata in my life. Until recently.

So what makes the salata version separate from that mild soft whey cheese found in tubs across the land. For a start, it packs a pungent, salty punch. Hence the name. It is  is only made over winter and spring when pastures are lush and herb-filled and the cooler air is perfect for ageing. 

I located an authentic version from Bermondsey-based Italian Artisan food importers Ham and Cheese after being alerted by the folk behind new Hebden Bridge bar, Coin, who serve a range of their charcuterie.

The ricotta salata I bought online is made by the Agostino family, who sell it normally from their butchers shop in Mirto, on Sicily’s north coast, west of Messina. We must have driven past on a road trip from Etna to Cefalu (main picture) the other year.

Their version is made from full-fat, raw cow’s milk, sometimes with the addition of goat’s or sheep’s milk, and is curdled with lamb or kid rennet before being put in to moulds. After a couple of days it spends 48 hours in a brine bath and is then aged for three months. It was a wonderful component of the Tish recipe for Pasta alla Norma. My one deviation from the norm (sic)? I added salted capers. Because they go so well in that other Sicilian aubergine, classic, caponata. Below, it tasted as good as it looked…

Ingredients: 2 firm aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm dice; 150ml extra virgin olive oil; ½ onion, finely chopped; 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped; a good handful of basil leaves

800g quality canned chopped tomatoes or passata; 400g dried rigatoni; 200g ricotta salata cheese, grated; sea salt

Method: Put the diced aubergines in a colander in the sink and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature, around 250°C/230°C fan/Gas Mark 10.

Rinse the aubergine in cold water and pat dry with a kitchen towel, then toss in a bowl with half the oil. Spread out on a baking tray, place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes or until caramelised, turning occasionally to make sure the pieces don’t dry out.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add half the basil and the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and cook gently for 23–30 minutes or until thickened (the exact time will depend on your canned tomato brand).

When the sauce is almost ready, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water according to the packet instructions to al dente. Add the aubergine to the sauce. Drain the pasta (reserving a little of the cooking water) and toss in the sauce. If the sauce seems too thick, add some cooking water to loosen.

Divide among the plates and sprinkle with the ricotta and remaining basil leaves, roughly torn over the top. It’s best to allow this to cool slightly before eating.

Serves four

Priest Stranglers and Little Sparrows are not quite the odd bedfellows they sound. Both find common ground in the North Italian city of Trento (above), glorious gateway to the Dolomites. The Trentino has always been wrangled over by Italy and Austria; reaching its blood-stained apogee during the Great War. Witness the trenches and obsolete weaponry that still litter the mountain ridges. 

A benevolent legacy, though, is the intermingling of Germanic and Italian Alpine cuisines. That’s why you’ll find Strangolapreti (stranglers) and Spätzle (sparrows) sharing equal billing on the menus. The former, also known Strozzapreti, are usually a twisty pasta made up of just flour water and salt – but no eggs. Legend has it these were taken by the Church as tithes, leaving the peasants to fulminate against ‘priest-chokers’ or ‘priest-stranglers’ in anti-clerical hotbeds such as Emilia Romagna. Or maybe it’s just a reference to how you shape them by hand.

Up in Trento my Strangolapreti turned out to be a delicious local variant – spinach gnocchi. In truth, they weren’t a far remove from the Spätzle, noodles which do benefit from the presence of eggs. In the Swabian-German dialect the name translates as ‘little sparrows’, which they resemble in flight when shaped by a spoon in the traditional way.

From its South West German birthplace the dish has flown across all the Alpine regions, establishing itself everywhere and, most handily, is now nesting in a restaurant in Manchester, paying its own homage – The Spärrows.

Up on Red Bank chef/co-owner Franco Concli stays true to his own Trentino roots by making the Spätzle the traditional way, hand scraping them off the floury board and dropping them into simmering water. They are available both as savoury and, very apres ski, as a sweet, with cinammon, brown sugar and butter.

I like both the Spätzle and Gnocchi served simply with butter and sage (£7 for 110g), but on a recent visit chose the £9 version with guanciale (cured pork cheek), which was fabulously soothing. So too was a special of beetroot-tinctured agnoletti filled with ricotta and lemon. 

Russian style pelmeni dumplings with beef/pork garlic breadcrumbs (£8.50) were less satisfying. I should have gone for the Polish pierogi, little dumplings filled with melted cottage cheese and potato with soured cream and sauerkraut, a favourite from The Spärrows’ early days in a small archway near Manchester’s Victoria Station.

Since then the drinks list has gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of co-owner, Polish-born Kasia Hitchcock. It is as focused as the cool but cosy fit-out of a much larger arch space. A sake and spirits expert, she has been very canny with a wine list that majors in the very Alpine territory occupied by most of the food. Reds such as Lagrein, Teroldego and a Pinot Nero, are all there, from the Trentino/Alto Adige with their better known country cousin, Zweigelt from Austria. Its producer Sepp Moser also supplies the well-priced house white, a moreish Gruner Veltliner (the thinking person’s Sauvignon Blanc).

It all takes me back to Trento. I was in town for the annual Mostra dei Vini, the spring festival celebrating the wines of the Trentino region. After dark I mingled with the winemakers and was astonished at the variety of styles and local grape varieties used. Among the reds I liked the chunky Marzeminos, the more ethereal Pinot Neros and the flagship Teroldegos, with Muller-Thurgau outstanding among the whites. The delicate Nosiola, grown in a small corner of Trentino only, fared better as the base for the dessert wine Vino Santo (not Vin Santo, that’s Tuscan).

The jolly fest was held in the stunning Castello del Buonconsiglio. The original 13th century Castelvecchio (“old castle”) is in contrast to all the Renaissance add-ons in different styles erected to the glory of various Prince-Bishops who ruled here in the name of the Holy Roman Empire. Cardinal Bernardio Clesio, the greatest of these, was responsible for its vast artistic treasure house, the Palazzo Magno. I liked the earlier Gothic-Venetian loggia.

The castle also houses a grim reminder of the bloody Italian campaign during the Great War – the dungeon that housed patriot martyr Cesare Battisti before he was hanged  in the castle grounds. This was Austrian territory then and they regarded him as a traitor for fighting on the Italian side. A Battisti mausoleum tops a hill outside Trento. As I write this piece on our own Remembrance Day I’ve opened a bottle of Teroldego to salute the fallen on a front that most Britons have never heard of.

The Spärrows, 16 Red Bank (Green Quarter), Manchester, M4 4HF. 0161 302 6267. Word of warning: access is via a plain door with minimal signage.