Sardinian caviar is tucked away in the bellies of a fish, the grey mullet. Although it is not a fish renowned for having the most refined flesh, in Sardinia, it reigns supreme.
What’s the reason?
When washed, salted and dried, the eggs are transformed into a genuine delicacy with an intense flavour and slightly bitter, almost almond-like aftertaste: Bottarga.
The Phoenicians were the first to salt and cure the sacs filled with grey mullet roe.
The Arabs gradually spread its use throughout the Mediterranean with the name ‘battarikh’ (salted fish eggs).
In mid-1400, Bartolomeo Platina declared, “I do not remember having eaten anything so exquisite” in “Il piacere onesto e della buona salute”. Similarly, in a document dated 1386, mention is made of a Catalan-Aragonese pirate ship which captured a sailing boat leaving the port of Oristano laden with “salted eel and bottarga”.
In short, a quick look through archives and documents from Sardinia and elsewhere show that there is no shortage of mention and praise for this amber delicacy from the sea.
From the Phoenicians to the Carthaginians and the ancient Egyptians to the Romans, the people of the Mediterranean had always loved this delicious amber-coloured delicacy . And the Sardinians were certainly no exception.
It was a valuable commodity for bartering or as a gift and deemed particularly noble and precious. But not for everyone. It was always a delicacy dominated by lagoon and tuna fishermen.
Whereas today, leading delicatessens and chic restaurants feature bottarga in their refrigerated display cases, in the 1970s, it was a food reserved for a few fortunate individuals. The only way to get hold of one or two whole roe sacs was to seek out the fishermen – buying in quantity had not yet been thought of. Today, it is Sardinian Gold: the market has expanded rapidly with high demand from France, Germany, Japan and Spain, not to mention the United States and America in general.
What’s the reason?
While there is no shortage of mullet from Japan to Australia, it is the sea around Sardinia that provides consumers with the finest bottarga which should be savoured slowly one morsel at a time.
In particular, the major production centres are in Alghero, Carloforte, Sant’Antioco, San Teodoro, Cabras, Porto Pino, Cagliari and Tortolì. There are also some small companies in Tuscany, Sicily and Calabria, Provence, Turkey and Tunisia.
But it is the combination of sea beds, climate and age-old processing methods that makes Sardinian bottarga so special.