spaghettini alla bottarga

Sorry to be absent this week.  No, I haven’t been away anywhere exotic, except in my dreams. But ‘Fine Food Queensland’ at the Brisbane Convention Centre was fun and provided loads of gourmet inspiration. 

I’ve been busy with my daughters and helping with an ‘autumn clean’ at Weka Weka too. Still fighting a ½ acre of weeds and lots of fruit picking.  My fruit bowls are piled high with freshly picked chillies, ruby red grapefruit and loads of limes. But there’s plenty of time for all that loveliness later in the week, isn’t there? Gotta show you the rubies though...

To top it off I just couldn’t make up my mind what to share with you next? Finally decided to surprise you with something from left field that’s neither sweet nor baked. An unexpected dish using a little known ingredient in South East Queensland that's coming into season very soon.  Or perhaps I should say swimming in.

The contestants on Australian ‘Masterchef’ created a lobster dish a while back using Bottarga, a seafood delicacy in many parts of the world. Simply put it’s sun-dried mullet roe. They complicated things (as per usual on that show) with a dozen different ‘elements’ to finish. My pet peeve! Bottarga isn’t meant to be a complicated dish. Gourmet Traveller got it right with their recipe. Hats off to them for keeping it so simple.  

What’s all the fuss about you ask? Please read on. This simple traditional recipe for Bottarga uses only five added ingredients; thin spaghettini, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, lemon and Italian parsley from your garden. It’s divine, something very different and should only take you ten minutes tops to prep and another ten to cook.

Ingredients - 400 grams Spaghettini (I use fresh pasta or Barilla Spaghettini No.3) ❤ 3 lemons, juice and finely grated rind ❤ 3 cloves of garlic smashed ❤ 1 cup extra virgin Olive Oil ❤ a big bunch of just picked Italian parsley coarsely chopped ❤ 25 grams (at least) of Bottarga, finely grated cold from the fridge

Serves 5-6 people

You can buy Bottarga from Philippe, The Truffleman. He sells online and sends it out directly (approx $24 for 100 grams). Philippe supplies select delis and restaurants too.  Bottarga is also available from specialist Aussie fish markets and David Jones food halls.

Bottarga is manufactured and packaged in Australia by Beach Gold Seafood Products at Eagle Farm in Brisbane. It is a totally natural product and only local Australian mullet is used. Bottarga is also known as karasumi (Japanese),  avgotaraho (Greek), boutarque(French), botarga (Spanish) and batarekh (Arabic). You can contact Beach Gold to find out your nearest stockist around Australia. Tel: (07) 3868 1983

Method + Top Tips

Finely grate your bottarga (use a microplane zester or any fine grater), chop the parsley and zest the lemons too - ready to mix all through the hot pasta when cooked.  Squeeze the lemon juice & discard seeds so juice is also ready.

Cook fresh or packet pasta in boiling salted water as per instructions until al dente. 5-6 minutes for packet spaghettini or only a minute or two for fresh pasta. 

Drain pasta into a colander and reserve 2 tablespoons of cooking water.  I like to do this with most pasta dishes when pasta is returned to the stovetop to incorporate a sauce or seasonings. 

Heat large pan with olive oil and cook garlic till fragrant.  Add spaghettini and all remaining ingredients to the pan, tossing through well to combine. Season with a little cracked pepper and tiny amount of salt if necessary, as naturally salty to begin with.  Serve hot with parsley and wafer thin slices of bottarga to garnish.

Tips: Wrap your bottarga leftovers up tightly -  it has a strong smell in the fridge. If you prefer to slice it really thin rather than grate it, use the longest, sharpest, thinest knife blade you have.  Other Bottarga serving suggestions; sliced very thin and served with olive oil, lemon wedges and country-style bread, sliced thinly over hot scrambled eggs and  Da Noi, Melbourne’s swish Sardi restaurant in South Yarra sometimes serves it with Malloreddus (little Sardinian gnocchi available from italian Delis) with prawns, chilli and fresh basil.

Travel Tale 

Sardegna. Bella Sardegna. That big beautiful island underneath Corsica in the middle of the Mediterranean.  That’s how I used to describe it to friends and family when I first went to live there.  That way they could easily plot me on the map and I would feel (perhaps?) not quite so far away from home. 

Ten years ago it wasn’t common place for a young Australian girl to set up house in mysterious Sardinia. “Haven’t you heard about the ‘banditos’, the notorious bandit hotspots in the hilly remote land of shepherds?!”, Aussie based Italians would ask me? “It’s not at all like living in Rome or Siena”, they’d say. That’s for certain.  Sardinia is of course so much more than its reputation and stunning seaside location. 

Sardinia is the ONLY location in Europe that reminds me of Australia. Pristine beaches, crystal clear water, Tasmanian blue gum trees (would a koala survive here?), Moreton Bay fig, poisonous oleander bushes and a superb cuisine based on sea and land.  Sure, we don’t have flamingos, an abundance of prickly pear cactus or rocky coves around every bend.  But if you pause and squint for just a minute ... you can almost call parts of it home.  Or was that just the homesickness talking? 

Like many Queenslanders, I’m a girl who grew up on local seafood; prawns, Moreton Bay bugs, crabs, oysters and whiting just reeled in from the Tweed River.  I’m no stranger to seafood.  But my first reaction to Sardinian seafood was pure dread.  I was in complete shock at the enormous platter placed in front of me. It was filled with every Mediterranean mollusc and crustacean a hook, pot or net could catch.  The stash included; spigola and other varieties of fish unknown to me, a couple of sea snakes, sea snails, cozze (baby mussels), vongole (sand cockle/clam - looks like a pippi to me) and gamberi and aragoste (prawns and lobsters). Complete with garum, a special fish sauce made from honey and vinegar. 

This slightly scary platter was delivered to our table at Ristorante Lo Scoglio, one of Cagliari’s most popular seafood dining spots, just out of town at Sant’Elia overlooking the sea. 

Isn’t it exciting when a new cuisine leaves you speechless and baffled. A whole new vocabulary opens up to test your tongue and taste buds. They didn’t teach this at the language school in Siena!

Bottarga was a word I’d never heard of or spoken. How could a piece of sun-dried mullet roe turn me so silly? I wasn’t even a fan of caviar.  But once converted to Bottarga, I had to seek it out at all costs (sometimes exorbitant) like an over zealous Italian hunting for mushrooms in the forest after heavy rain. I couldn’t get enough of it to grate on fresh pasta.

Once home, it’ll be no surprise to you that I started exploring what else was swimming in Queensland waters. I also scoured deli shelves and seafood specialists to find out if any Sardinian specialties were available here. I discovered with amazement that some of the world’s finest Bottarga is produced in Brisbane and exported to Japan and around the world.  Leads me to question ‘Was it Queensland or Italian bottarga I was eating in Sardinia?’ 

Luckily some call it poor man’s caviar in Australia, making it much more affordable and fresher than any import. Many species of mullet are found around the Aussie coast - mainly caught off beaches in Queensland, NSW and WA.  They move out to sea from April to July to spawn.  So look out for fresh, smoked or sun-dried mullet roe coming your way very soon.  

Sardi people are full of pride and their cuisine has developed and diversified slowly over many centuries. They are often a reserved mob & difficult to get to know.  The Italian word for foreigners is ‘stranieri’.  More often than not I felt a little strange or like a stranger living on their beautiful island.  My blonde hair and language skills not helpful to my cause.

First ruled by the Phoenicians, then Carthaginians and Romans, the Spaniards arrived on the island bringing their typically Catalan dishes, especially to northern parts such as Alghero. It's a gorgeous town that became an important tuna centre. Or at least it was before world demand for bluefin sushi tuna overtook supply.  $4 billion dollars in Tokyo’s fish market alone! 

The Arabs later brought rice and almond pastries to Sardinia which became popular staples of their cuisine. However Sardinia’s largest export to the world is Pecorino -  one cheese well worth stocking in your fridge.  Never to be grated on seafood pasta dishes though - try to resist the temptation.

The plates featured are handmade local ceramics and a Sardinian tradition that's many centuries old. The blue and white piece with crazy gallinas (chickens) is from Sardartis in Castelsardo, in the north west of the island. The town of Assemini in the south is also well known for its ceramics made by Nunzia Lecca.  I had boxes filled and very carefully wrapped to post home. Almost all arrived in one piece; vases, bowls, plates and dishes. A special way to serve up and capture the spirit of Sardi cuisine and this stunning region.