Annals of exotic ingredients – bottarga

A few months ago a good friend who’s worked as a chef all across Europe came to visit from Italy, and brought a big bag of top-notch culinary swag with him. Among semi-cured salamis, aged carnaroli rice, artisan neapolitan spaghetti and some kind of toothpaste-like, still-fermenting goats cheese, he included a bottarga di muggine – the salted, pressed and dried roe of a grey mullet. While we tore our way through all the other produce, the bottarga has sat in the fridge while I debated what to do with this totally unfamiliar delicacy, and my wife debated whether she wanted to try it at all. I finally got around to sampling it recently, so here’s a report and a simple recipe should some suddenly appear in your kitchen.

The first version – dead simple: slice it really thinly with a bit of lemon and olive oil over it, and just savour the full flavour. Having peeled off the protective film around the dried mullet ovaries, it was much softer than I expected – the texture is akin to firm membrillo, and it slices really easily. The flavour is definitely fishy and a bit salty, but is much more delicate than I anticipated – it’s creamy and complex, and even very slightly sweet and fruity. There are definite similarities with the flavour of anchovies, but it’s much, much smoother, with none of the punchy harshness that puts some people off anchovies on their pizza.

The second version – spaghetti tossed with garlic, bottarga, lemon zest and parsley. I chopped a couple of cloves of garlic, grated about 30g of bottarga, chopped up a small bunch of parlsey and zested half a lemon to make spaghetti for two. With the spaghetti nearly ready, the garlic was fried in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil for a minute before the bottarga was thrown in for the briefest contact with hot oil and the pan taken off the heat. Then I added the parsley and lemon before tossing the drained spaghetti in the pan with a squeeze of lemon juice.

An extremely simple and tasty dish, although not as interesting a flavour as the sliced bottarga. The fishiness becomes extremely subtle when mixed with the spaghetti and other ingredients, and what you notice instead is a general umami-tastiness which makes it very moreish. I also think the hot oil moderated the flavours – next time I’ll use more bottarga, and take the pan off the heat before stirring it through.

Having ventured into bottarga territory, I think I’ll get through the remaining 3/4 of it pretty quickly – any suggestions for ways to use it would be very welcome. That said, I’m not sure how often I’ll be buying more – it’s not exactly a cheap ingredient.

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