Food: Salt of the earth

Sometimes all you need is bottarga and fresh potatoes, says Annie Bell

One of the best tips I can give you on store cupboard convenience involves a whole tuna bottarga and a bottle of young green olive oil. This was the booty smuggled back from a visit to Sicily, when the emergency suppers during the weeks that followed were positively celestial. Mounds of spaghetti that oozed the grassy new olive oil, peppered with finely shaved slivers of this wickedly pungent roe, which is pinkish grey in colour and has the hardness of a truffle. It is said that this to the Sicilians and Sardinians is what caviar is to the Russians, basically a great luxury of the kind that it's nice to have knocking around the fridge.

It's also the kind of food that you would expect to have confiscated at customs; if I were an official, I should be dead suspicious at the sight of a whole tuna roe, pressed and salted. Not unlike a caveman's club, it is sealed with a papery skin flecked with crystalline salt that has the sheen of granite, a sturdy 12 inches in length, tapered at one end and blunt at the other. It is altogether different from grey mullet bottarga, which is as smooth and glossy as a wax candle, and burnt orange right through to the inside. Apart from being much smaller, it is completely different in flavour from the tuna, altogether more subtle with a concentrated taste of sea urchins, in contrast to the anchovy-tinge of tuna roe.

A Sicilian pronounces bottarga with the emphasis on the ar and a very soft o: bot-arrr-ga, a gentle growl, this was how my friend Natalia Ravida used to say it. Together we visited a bottarga factory on the southern coast of Sicily not far from her family's farm, and together we'd been rather spooked by the office, which was hung with pictures of the gory mattanza, the tuna kill, a ritual every bit as bloodthirsty as a bullfight.

It takes place in the spring, when the tuna run is at its fullest and they race off the coast, in a vast shoal. The fish are cordoned off with nets and led into a series of pens, followed by a fleet of boats with all the frivolity of the Henley regatta. What follows, though, is a bloodbath, as the tuna, which are now crowded and writhing, are harpooned by men standing on the side of the pens, and the water turns red. It was a fishing system invented by the Arabs in the 9th century, and if you can turn a blind eye to the gore of the occasion it is exquisite in its timing simplicity. There is an 18th-century engraving by A Bova in Mary Taylor Simeti's book Sicilian Food which shows how the most basic geometry has been superimposed on nature to man's advantage. In reality, such fishing is dying out as the tuna change their migratory patterns. The memory, though, is dear to Sicilian culture.

But enough of Sicilian bottarga. The importer Michele Cecere, whose company, Med Cibo, imports Sardinian bottarga, maintains that this is the finest. Not having compared it with Sicilian or any other, I cannot vouch for it, except to say that his is indeed excellent. In Sardinia, where mullet bottarga is preferred to the tuna, the finest fish are those found in the Stagno di Cabras, caught using a boat called Su Fassono, made out of reeds and bog grass that's carried by the fisherman on their backs down to the lagoon, and here it is put out to sea to catch the fish in nets.

The roes are salted, pressed and finally wind-dried, by which time they are so well preserved that in the days of the Phoenicians they were stored for up to three years. To them it was a precious food to carry on their lengthy sea voyages as they settled around the Mediterranean. They are supposed to have introduced it to Sardinia as long ago as 1200 BC when they conquered the island.

Once again my fridge is looking good, with its whole bottarga, though it is disappearing with the same speed as a stick of French bread and a pot of Gentleman's Relish. In fact, bottarga goes surprisingly well with thinly sliced French bread and butter, just as it does shaved over warm new potatoes or a creamy yellow mass of scrambled eggs. I haven't actually got any further with it, there's no need; it's one of those luxuries that shines far too brightly on its own to merit any dressing up.

Warm salad of new potatoes and bottarga, serves 4

You can use either tuna or mullet bottarga here. For the tuna, slice off the outer skin before shaving it; this isn't as necessary with the mullet although it does have a fine casing. I also find that, whereas the tuna roe can be shaved into very fine slices and is quite crumbly in texture, the mullet is nicer coarsely grated.

1kg small, waxy potatoes

60g bottarga

150ml white wine

sea salt, black pepper

8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

squeeze of lemon juice

112 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Peel the potatoes and cook until they are tender. Drain them into a sieve and leave them for 10 minutes. Slice the bottarga wafer-thin using a sharp knife.

Place the white wine in a small saucepan and reduce it to a syrup. Season it and add the olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. If the potatoes are small, leave them whole, otherwise slice and place them in a large bowl, toss them with the dressing, then add the parsley. Very gently fold the bottarga into the potatoes. Eat the salad straightaway, although it's still delicious a couple of hours later when it's cooled down.

Spaghetti with bottarga, serves 4

This is the most basic way I know of serving bottarga, the beauty of it aside from the sheer ease of preparation being that you can fully enjoy its deeply savoury nature with nothing to interrupt it. You can use either mullet or tuna bottarga, although I've tested the recipe using the tuna, which is the stronger of the two, so you might like to step up the amount if you're using mullet. It's also worth locating a really good artisanal spaghetti if you can.

12 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 heaped tsp red chilli, finely chopped

juice of 1 lemon

6 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

black pepper

200g bottarga, skin removed and grated

400g spaghetti

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Combine the oil, chilli, lemon juice, the parsley and black pepper in a large bowl, and gently mix in the bottarga. Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook, testing frequently towards the end to catch it while it is still firm to the bite, then drain it into a sieve, and leaving it quite wet, tip it into the bowl with the dressing. Toss it and add a little salt if you feel it needs it, and serve straightaway.

Bottarga is available from Med Cibo, 14c Crewson Road, London SW9 (0171-587 1188); 5th Floor, Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1; and Carluccio's, 28a Neal Street, London WC2.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

    £16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

    £27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

    £19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

    Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor