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About halfway down the western coast of Sardinia, the Tyrrhenian sea twists round to form a small archipelago consisting of patches of land and a large marshy lagoon. A fishing haven, this stretch of coast extends for about 30 km and comprises the Sinis peninsula and two tiny uninhabited islands set in a mixture of fresh and salt water. This is where grey mullet bottarga comes from and its finest varieties are to be found in the area of Cabras in Oristano province.
What is bottarga?
Bottarga is the name given to the roe pouch after being pressed, salt–cured and left to dry. The strongest and most resistant pouch is that of tuna, while those of grey mullet are particularly appreciated. A pouch should weigh at least one kilo to be suitable for processing.
Grey mullet bottarga stands out for its typical colour ranging from gold to amber, for its aroma and the lingering sensation it leaves on the palate. Its flavour is more delicate and less bitter than that of tuna.
The size varies according to the fish species: a side of tuna weighing over 100 kilos has a pouch that exceeds one kilo, while that of grey mullet bottarga is never more than 400 grams.
The origins of bottarga
The word bottarga derives from the Arabic term bottarikh (meaning salted roe), which used to be a precious merchandise bartered throughout the Mediterranean area. Inhabited by man as early as Neolithic times, during the bronze age, the area of Cabras learned the techniques for processing roe from the Egyptians.
Thanks to Phoenician and Roman culture it then spread further South, particularly to certain areas around Cabras in Oristano province. It was once humble fare, produced and eaten by fishermen when out at sea but, in the course of time, it became a delicacy appreciated by discerning connoisseurs throughout the world.
The secret of the unmistakable flavour of Cabras bottarga is the swampy environment, now a Marine Protected Area, which constitutes an ideal habitat for grey mullet.
How bottarga is made
The pouch or ovary is carefully extracted from the female fish and washed to remove any impurities. At this point, the artistry and expertise of man steps in: first of all, the pouches are salted with sea salt. It is necessary to turn them over every day and replace the salt when it becomes damp, followed by the pressing and dry curing processes. The aim is to absorb the water content as quickly as possible.
During the day, the bottarga is exposed to the sun on racks to facilitate the evaporation of its liquid, at night it is wrapped in absorbent kitchen paper for protection. On the first day, the salt is replaced every 4-6 hours, then at gradually longer intervals. When the salt has almost ceased to become damp, this phase draws to an end. The best harvesting period is September, when the grey mullet is plumper and thousands of them enter the marshy ponds of Cabras in shoals, where they are trapped in the fishermen’s nets.
How to enjoy bottarga
Sold in whole pieces, vacuum packs or jars, this ingredient is as precious as truffle or caviar. It can be enjoyed as a starter on buttered toast or just as it is, cut into fine slices, possibly seasoned with a trickle of extra virgin olive oil. The most traditional way to enjoy its unmistakable flavour is to grate some onto pasta-based first courses, with a preference for long pasta shapes such as spaghetti.
The gold of Cabras really comes into its own grated onto the freshest ewe’s milk ricotta, seasoned with a trickle of extra virgin olive oil from Sicily. The ideal pairing for a dish of linguine pasta with bottarga is a bottle of Vermentino di Gallura with its elegant fragrance of aromatic herbs and fresh acacia flowers.