Bottarga and How to Use It

Written by Katie Parla on May 19, 2023

The Stagno di Cabras is a shallow lagoon in western Sardinia where herons and flamingos wade through pools as they hunt for food. The lagoon is trimmed by gravel roads and artichoke fields—if you trust Google Maps to get around the area (you shouldn’t), you will almost certainly end up off-roading through someone’s artichoke patches! The whole area has the feeling of a preindustrial civilization, not just a time before streetlights and paved roads. The traditions of the lagoon feel trapped in a prehistoric age.

The main industry in the lagoon, production of bottarga di muggine (gray mullet roe), hasn’t changed much over the millennia, either. Bottarga is cured fish roe, a preserved food that has been made in the Mediterranean for millennia. Tuna bottarga is made mainly in Sicily, while gray mullet bottarga has been made around Cabras for about three thousand years. You’ll also find bottarga production in eastern Sardinia, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. In the late summer, the shallow water teems with mature gray mullet, and their cured roe is so prized, it goes by the name oro di Cabras (“gold from Cabras”). Oro di Cabras is also, conveniently, the name of one of the best producers and one of the few to make the cured roe in true artisanal fashion.

Harvesting Bottarga Food of the Italian Islands Katie Parla.

The process begins when female fish are caught in reed nets by a team of about a dozen fishermen in the lagoon below Cabras. Their roe sacks are harvested, massaged to remove air bubbles, rinsed, and salted. The meat is destined for regional recipes like su pisci affumau (smoked with helichrysum branches), scabecciau (in escabeche), sa merca (simmered in salt brine with local herbs), and cassoa (in fish soup). Meanwhile, the roe sacks are pressed between wooden slabs to dry slowly for 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the weather. The slow drying process makes the final product more delicate—and more valuable. It’s far more expensive to make bottarga the artisanal way than by the industrial process, in
which the roe sacks dry quickly in ovens or heated rooms.

Catching Mullet By Hand Food of the Italian Islands Katie Parla.

In the Stagno di Tortolì on the east coast of Sardinia, Cooperativa Pescatori Tortolì makes their top-of-the-line bottarga from hand-caught gray mullet. It’s a sight to behold, and one I witnessed one summer when, as I looked on, veteran fisherman Giuseppe Brughitta strapped on a mask, submerged himself in the shallow water, and surfaced in just 2 minutes with twelve fish.

Bottarga di muggine is briny, salty, and subtler than bottarga di tonno (cured tuna roe), which is a bit fishier and made on the Isola di San Pietro and on Sicily’s western and southern coasts. In some senses, bottarga behaves like cheese, delivering an umami-rich flavor to pasta dishes like spaghetti con la bottarga (page 76 of Food of the Italian Islands) and insalata di carciofi (page 154 of Food of the Italian Islands). It can also be added to seafood pastas, either bloomed in the oil used to sauté any aromatics or grated directly on top. I love spaghetti alle vongole with a dusting of bottarga grated over top. A sharp knife or mandoline works well for slicing bottarga–try slivers with butter on toast–while a Microplane is ideal for a grated cheese-like flurry. I always buy whole lobes from a reputable artisanal source.

To get yourself some good-quality bottarga, either go to the source and visit L’Oro di Cabras or Cooperativa Pescatori Tortolì in Sardinia. For US-based customers, Gustiamo has bottarga included in their Food of the Italian Islands basket!

Photo credits: Ed Anderson

Keep Reading

Chicken Cacciatore Recipe - Katie Parla

Recipe: Pollo alla Cacciatora (Chicken Cacciatore)

Tipping in Italy | Katie Parla

Tips for Tipping in Italy

Abbacchio alla Romana | Katie Parla

Recipe: Abbacchio alla Romana | Roman-style Suckling Lamb