PESCE SALATO in SIcilia (Salted Fish in Sicily)and BOTTARGA revisited

I always look forward to Richard Cornish’s Brain Food column on Tuesdays in The Age. For his first article this year he has kicked off with Bottarga (January 25 issue).

What a great start!

He says that we love bottarga because it has the power to enrich and enhance dishes, much the same way as Parmesan cheese  improves pasta and jamon makes everything more delicious.  I always think of anchovies and how widely they are used not just in Sicilian cooking but in Italian cooking  generally an dhow much they enrich the taste of many dishes.

The bottarga that Richard is writing about is Bottarga di Muggine:  ‘the salted, processed and sun-dried mullet roe that is pale orange to yellow in colour.”

Having roots in Sicily, I am more accustomed with Bottarga di Tonno, made from tuna. In comparison to the mullet roe,  bottarga  from tuna can be darker in colour and more pungent in taste.

I bought this  lump of bottarga (in the photo below) from Enoteca Sileno in Melbourne. Mullet bottarga is easier to find.

In Sicily bottarga has been used for millennia and is only one of many parts of the tuna that are salted.

Many years ago, when bottarga would have been next to impossible to purchase in Australia, I purchased many packets of plastic wrapped bottarga  and various salted parts or the tuna from a vendor in the Market in Syracuse who specialised in salted and dried fish. I brought them back to Australia in my suitcase. I declared them, but because they were sealed securely  I was cleared through customs.

In my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking, I begin the section of the book PESCE SALATO (Salted Fish) by saying:

Salted fish has been greatly valued and an important industry in Sicily. During medieval times the standard Lenten diet was based on pulses and dried salted fish. Still popular in Sicily, salted fish were popular with the ancient Romans. Anchovies, which still flavour many dishes, probably replaced the gurum used widely by ancient Romans.

Gurum was made by crushing and fermenting fish innards. It was very popular during Roman times, an import from the Greeks. It was a seasoning preferred to salt and added to other ingredients like vinegar, wine, oil and pepper to make a condiment used for meat, fish and vegetables – much like the fish sauce used in some Asian cuisines.

Two early cookery books, The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book by Martino of Como and On Right Pleasure and Good Health by Platina, praise the taste and quality of salted tuna (particularly the middle section of tuna called tarantellum or terantello). Salted tuna (sometimes called mosciam in Sicily) was introduced by the Arabs (who called it muscamma) in about the 10th century. It has firm, deep red-brown flesh that needs only paper-thin slicing and is mainly eaten softened in oil with a sprinkling of lemon juice.

Salted tuna is also produced in southern Spain; they refer to it as air-dried tuna or sun-dried tuna and Mojama tuna.

Bottarga (called buttarica or buttarga in Sicilian) are the eggs in the ovary sacs of female tuna. These are pressed into a solid mass, salted and processed. The name bottarga is thought to have evolved from the Arabic buarikh or butarah – raw fish eggs, once made made by dipping the sac in beeswax and leaving it to dry. Making bottarga is a much more complicated process now and is only produced in Favignana. It is grated to flavour dishes, or sliced finely and eaten as an antipasto.

I have eaten bottarga mainly grated over pasta dishes and eggplant caponata, but in Syracuse I enjoyed baked eggplant stuffed with seafood and topped with grated bottarga.

Richard Cornish says :

‘Grated bottarga is sensational over buttered pasta. You need nothing other than a glass of wine to complete the dish. Try it grated over spaghetti with tomatoes and a little chilli, or on hot flatbread drizzled with oil as an aperitivo. Make a delicious salad of finely sliced fennel and radicchio topped with bottarga. Grate bottarga into aioli to make a dressing for a Caesar salad. Make softly scrambled eggs, grate over 50g of bottarga and enjoy on hot buttered sourdough’.

Sounds good and I am looking forward to trying some of these.

I have a post on my blog  for  the recipe:

PASTA CON BOTTARGA ( Pasta with Grated Bottarga)

PASTA ALLA NORMA and a variation (Pasta with tomato salsa and fried eggplants; and currants, anchovies and bottarga) …photo, as eaten on the coast near Agrigento.

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