Bottarga, or salted mullet roe, is one of the most ancient processed foods. The Egyptians considered it a delicacy and as many as 5000 years ago they conserved mullet roe in paraffin. Bottarga jars have been found in the pyramids with their contents pretty much intact.
Bottarga is made from the roe pouch of mullet, tuna or swordfish. In Italy it is produced mainly in Sardinia (the Bottarga from Cabras is well known), in Orbetello (Tuscany’s Maremma coastal region), in Sicily (Milazzo and Trapani), and in Calabria.
Similar specialties are produced also in other parts of the Mediterranean:“batarekh” in Egypt and “poutargue” in Provence. It is perhaps for this reason that Bottarga is nicknamed the “Caviar of the Mediterranean.” It appears that the Phoenicians were the first to produce Bottarga. But the name itself comes from Arabic: “butarikh,” meaning salted roe.
Bottarga preparation is very simple and artisanal. The pouches with the mullet roe are kept in brine from 8 to 20 hours, depending on their size. They are then salted on all sides, tied with string and placed on a plank. A weight is then placed on them for 40 days during which they will be salted every day. The weight and the salt squeezes all the blood and the liquids from the roe. In the next phase, the pouches, which by then have taken an oblong shape and have a thickness of about 1.5 to 2 inches, are tied lengthwise and hung to dry for another 30 to 40 days, depending on their weight.
Bottarga used to be the staple food of fishermen because it kept so well and could be taken on long fishing trips.
Recipe: Spaghetti con bottarga.
Bottarga di Muggine (Grey Mullet Roe) – From Cabras – Whole
Grey mullet is, perhaps more than any other animal, what it eats. In the pond in Cabras, where these grey mullet are raised, the fish eat naturally and healthfully.
The mullet’s eggs, after being extracted, washed and purified, are put under salt and then hung to mature. At the right moment–and the expertise of the Manca brothers is put to good use in determining exactly when that is–the dried and salted eggs that make bottarga are pressed and sent for distribution.
The color of the roe ranges from gold to dark amber. The saline aroma is accompanied by notes of almond and musk. Oro di Cabras has a smoothness that other bottarga can never achieve. A smoothness exalted in the bottarga with su biddiu (in the local Sardinian dialect: the bellybutton). Only the biggest and healthiest grey mullets (one in thirty, on average) allow the expert fisherman to extract the whole egg sac up to the “bellybutton”, the external belly part, thus avoiding any contact between the eggs, hermetically protected inside the sac, and the outside.
Bottarga can be eaten very simply with bread, after being sliced in thin shreds and left to soften in olive oil for at least half an hour, or in the classic Sardinian pasta dish Spaghetti Con La Bottarga (always add the bottarga at the end on the dish, not in the pan), or in fancier combinations. It is always delicious on omelets, rice, and mashed potatoes.