“We stayed talking and singing and drinking big sips of claret, and eating bottarga and bread and butter until 12 o’clock in the evening.” Samuel Pepys had simple but not stripped down tastes. (Realizing that the Great Fire of London was approaching his house, he dug a hole in his garden and buried his wine and Parmesan cheese.) Bottarga – salted and dried fish roe – was best known here in the 17th century, returning frequently in the kitchen. books. But then it disappeared and if an Englishman was looking for the salty, fishy, umami side of things, they usually turned to anchovies.
Nowadays, bottarga has become exotic. A few Italian restaurants in London have it, but you’re more likely to taste it in Sardinia or Sicily, or at expensive restaurants in Amalfi in Venice. Both islands are where Italian bottarga is made, although other countries, including Greece and Japan, produce something similar. Sardinia specializes in mullet roe, Sicily in tuna (usually bluefin tuna unfortunately). Both are excellent. The Sicilian version is stronger and saltier, better for elaborate cuisine; Sardinian is perhaps more nuanced and delicate.
It’s expensive: a 90g slab costs £20. I used half of it in this salad for six, but for the classic spaghetti recipe – either plain spaghetti dressed in olive oil with grated bottarga or with chilli and garlic too – it costs relatively few. It is very good on scrambled eggs or risotto and is wonderful grated on thinly sliced raw fish with a little lemon juice and olive oil.
Chef Giorgio Locatelli is of the same conviction as Pepys. “When the new batches of spring bottarga arrive in the kitchen, I have to stop myself from sitting there, slicing it and eating it on the spot,” he wrote. “It’s beautiful on toast with fairly strong olive oil.”
Salad of celery, prawns and bottarga
Choose the whitest celery possible. It can be bleached slightly to remove the crunch, but I prefer it. Ogden Nash is ambivalent: “Celery, raw / Develops the jaw, / But celery, stewed, / Chews more slowly.
Cook the prawns very briefly in very salted boiling water. Drain and cool before peeling and cleaning the digestive tract.
Separate the celery stalks and run a peeler around the outside of the larger outer stalks to remove the strings. Cut the stems diagonally into 3 cm sections.
Cut the Little Gems crosswise into 1cm ribbons and separate them by mixing them with the celery.
Prepare a dressing with a teaspoon of sea salt, ground black pepper, the juice of two lemons and four or five tablespoons of olive oil.
Mix the celery and lettuce in this mixture and arrange the shrimp in the salad.
Using a vegetable peeler, cut the bottarga into thin strips and arrange on top. Serve with bread, ideally the Sardinian carta di musica.
Vermentino is the Sardinian varietal and the good ones, with a balance of saltiness, acidity and viscosity, can’t be better to accompany the fierce umami of bottarga. We had the chance to taste it with a bottle of Bellet, from the heights of Nice.
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