The third in a series of extracts from Semplice Real Italian Food

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th December 2014
Semplice Real Italian Food by Dino Joannides shares his fascinating gastronomic encounters with producers, chefs, cooks and fellow epicureans and his unique network of contacts and over 30 years of food related knowledge and experience.  In this third instalment Dino is looking at Bottarga: SpagBottagrgaBottarga is the naturally dried roe from grey mullet (muggine) or tuna and is thought to have been introduced to the coastal areas of Italy by the Phoenicians around the 8th century bc. With high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a strong umami (savoury) flavour and a concentrated fishy aroma, bottarga tends to be either loved or hated. The traditional method of producing it is to delicately extract the egg pouch from the female fish, then salt and press it until dry. The time allowed for this varies among both producers and countries. Some of the earliest records suggest that this method of producing and preserving fish roe originated in the Nile delta around the 10th century bc and eventually spread to areas that are now present-day Greece, Turkey, Italy and France. The Italian word bottarga has its roots in Arabic. The grey mullet variety used here is known as baterekh in modern Arabic, botarga in Spanish, poutarge in French, and avgotaraho in modern Greek. Sardinian bottarga di muggine from the small town of Cabras has become indelibly associated with fine Italian cuisine, which has contributed to the product’s elevation to luxury status. Indeed, it is often referred to as the ‘caviar of the south’. Bottarga di Orbetello, produced in the area around the Orbetello lagoon in the province of Grossetto, Tuscany, is listed as a protected product by the Slow Food Foundation.The main producers today are in Sardinia, Sicily and Tuscany. Excellent bottarga can also be found in Greece, where the avgotaraho from Messologiou has PDO status; in Turkey, whose haviar is listed in the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste, a catalogue of excellence; and in Egypt, around Port Said, where outstanding baterekh is produced.
See Dino's first and second blog instalments here: Vincisgrassi Braised shin of veal (Ossobuco alla Milanese)
Historically, this bottarga was made mainly at home for personal use by the fishermen’s families. Nowadays most of the grey mullet and its eggs are exported to Sardinia, where the bottarga ‘industry’ is all too well developed. Sadly, fish eggs from as far away as Florida find their way to the island to help meet global demand for the Sardinian product. Meanwhile, the Orbetello product is still produced on a very small scale, and can be found in a few upmarket delicatessens. Needless to say, it tends to be rather expensive. Bottarga can be bought in good delicatessens or online. You will find that the Italian product is left in its natural casing, while the Greek and Egyptian products are coated in beeswax. The best examples tend to be firm but still tender, with colours that range from gold to dark amber. Always opt for vacuum-packed or beeswax-wrapped bottarga. Never buy the ready-grated product. In my view, the latter tends to be inferior quality and does not have the same intensity of flavour. Bottarga can be grated, chopped, sliced or shaved, and will keep in the fridge for up to a year, as long as it is vacuum sealed or wrapped tightly in cling film. SimpliceSpaghetti with grey mullet Bottarga (Spaghetti alla Bottarga di Muggine) Particularly associated with Sardinia, this dish can be found in many of its restaurants. Also, most families on the island have their own recipe for it, so, like many dishes, it is the subject of heated debate. To add to the dispute, Spaghetti alla Bottarga has now ‘crossed over’, which means it is prepared and eaten all over Italy (and beyond). The great advantage of this dish is that it can essentially be made at any time as the majority of the ingredients can be kept in the store cupboard or fridge. In my opinion, the main ingredient itself is so good and packed with multi-layered flavours that the number of other ingredients should be kept to an absolute minimum. For me, the addition of garlic, chilli and lemon juice or zest simply destroys the two core ingredients of this dish, namely the bottarga and dried pasta. I have had variants of this dish for most of my adult life in Sardinian restaurants and homes, in other parts of Italy, and throughout Europe and North America. However, the best I have tasted, and the recipe that I tend to base my version on, was eaten in London. I first ran into Roberto Pisano, a native Sardinian, when he was running front of house in one of London’s better Italian restaurants. He later opened two of his own, whilst also running a restaurant group that had two other excellent Italian establishments. From the first time I met him, I noted that the Spaghetti alla Bottarga served in his restaurant was exceptional. After many requests over the years for the secret of his recipe, Roberto one day simply said to me, ‘The spaghetti never touches water’. What he meant is that he boils his pasta in fumetto, a wonderfully intense fish stock made with the bones, heads and trimmings of grey mullet or other white fish, such as sea bass or sea bream. Roberto’s dish, which I share with you here, is truly outstanding and perfectly balanced, but what I particularly like is that the limited number of ingredients allows the bottarga to be the star of the show.

See the recipe of spaghetti with grey mullet bottarga hereDino

Dino Joannides is a consummate food fanatic and bon Viveur. With an Italian mother and half Greek half Corsican father he spent his first years in Italy before moving to the UK. Over the last 30 odd years he has traveled and eaten all over Italy in people’s homes, simple trattorias and the finest restaurants. Dino believes that good quality ingredients, in small quantities, are what make a perfect meal. Get your copy of Semplice Real Italian Food Book by Dino Joannides here
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th December 2014

The third in a series of extracts from Semplice Real Italian Food