PITTSBURGH — Bold indeed was the first person to eat an oyster.
But who was the first person to remove the egg-filled ovaries from a mullet fish, salt them, press them, dry them in the sun and then eat some of that?
Italians, I have learned, call these cured roe sacs bottarga, but it's also called botargo and many other names. In Sardinia and Sicily, where it's also made with the larger roe sacs of tuna, it's prized as poor people's caviar.
The dense orange to brown slabs, ranging from several inches to more than a foot long, typically are grated onto pasta or salads, or served in thin slices, a la Parmigiana-Reggiano. Like the cheese, bottarga packs a wallop of unami but with the concentrated, primal flavor of fish.
"I always say to people who have not tasted bottarga that it tastes like the essence of the sea," says Chicago-area food writer and cooking instructor Viktorija Todorovska. In her new "The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and Culture of a Mediterranean Island" (Agate Surrey, October 2013, $22.95), she presents several recipes made with this ingredient that is so important in that place and along surrounding coasts.
I got my hands on a copy of the cookbook earlier this month when I could find only a few references to bottarga in my cookbooks. That's not, I learned, because it's anything new.
In her comprehensive 2012 "The Country Cooking of Greece," Diane Kochilas describes mullet-roe harvesting on the Western coast of that country, where the resulting golden ingots of avgotaraho are dipped in beeswax to preserve them. "For Greeks," she writes, "avgotaraho is the most precious delicacy there is, one known and revered by anyone with well-honed taste buds, including more than a few ancient Greek and Roman gourmands and even the Pharaohs before them."
The delicacy is said to date all the way back to the Phoenicians, whose ships spread it around the Mediterranean. They simply were practicing nose-to-tail eating, and this was their way of preserving a plentiful protein. Today it's made — often just as it was centuries ago, including the sun drying — and eaten from Egypt and elsewhere in Africa to Taiwan and Japan, where karasumi, as it's known there, can command hundreds of dollars per pound. Four versions, including one made by women in Mauritania and the Turkish version, haviar, are in Slow Food International's Ark of Taste listing of the world's extraordinary "heritage" foods.
I wish I could say I discovered this unusual food on a sun-drenched over-Christmas tuna-fishing trip in Italy's Aegadian Islands, but actually I started learning about it at DeLallo Italian Marketplace on Route 30 in Jeannette, Pa. It was one of the ingredients in a recipe on a package of fregola — a couscous-like oven-toasted pellet pasta from Sardinia — that my wife and I picked up and wanted to try.
DeLallo didn't carry bottarga, and no other store we know seemed to, but we still wanted to make this recipe, so we found bottarga online and wound up ordering some from a Las Vegas/South Pasadena, Fla., importer (www.lizshamirianbottarga.com). The company offers it in various forms, including pregrated, coated in beeswax and moist for serving in slices. None is cheap. To try it, we ordered a small 31/2-ounce lobe of Sardinian for $34.84 with postage. It arrived, in a resealable plastic bag, looking like the pressed and dried organ it is, feeling and smelling a little like fish jerky.
We made and enjoyed the Fregola with Tuna and Bottarga recipe on Christmas Eve — a simple, one-pot feast of two fishes, made nicely more flavorful with a mere tablespoon of grated bottarga. I wouldn't say it's addictive, but that did make us want to do more with the stuff.
I found just a few bottarga recipes in my cookbooks, including in "Made in Sicily" by Giorgio Locatelli (Ecco, 2012), which has one for Pasta con la Bottarga. But it calls for a whopping 4 ounces, turned into a gravyish sauce, which not only would cost a fortune but also probably would be too strong a taste, at least for a newbie like me. I wonder now if that's some kind of error.
Ms. Todorovska agrees. "A little goes a long way," she told me via email after I got her book and contacted her. "I recommend that people use it as seasoning rather than as dressing or sauce. In Sardinia, it is often sprinkled on all kinds of salads."
Recipes in her new book include Artichokes with Bottarga, Corkscrew-Shaped Pasta With Zucchini Cream and Bottarga, Risotto With Bottarga and Tomato Bruschetta With Bottarga.
As she writes, "a grating of bottarga on pasta is all you need."
People liken it to truffles. Tastewise, it's a bit like anchovies or fish sauce.
We tried and loved her recipe for Spaghetti with Bottarga, which she calls "one of the most famous dishes on the island."
But she believes bottarga is getting more popular in North America, where she sees more restaurants using it.
And in fact, the ingredient recently has been championed by food writers (the Los Angeles Times' S. Irene Virbila, an avowed bottarga smuggler, in September declared it to be "having a moment") and food celebrities such as Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. More on the last, later.
In Pittsburgh, the only place I'd heard of that sometimes has bottarga on the menu is Dish Osteria on 17th Street, South Side. In her 2008 review of the place, then-dining critic China Millman raved: "The Spaghetti alla Bottarga ($19) made superb use of this too rare ingredient," which she described as "exotic oily slabs (that) almost resemble some kind of cured meat and taste of the ocean."
Owner and executive chef Michele Savoia still regularly puts that dish on the menu, which is what he did for a stretch starting Jan. 16.
That morning, foodie photographer Larry Roberts and I squeezed into his tiny kitchen for a chat and a demonstration.
Mr. Savoia grew up with his grandmother in Sicily, but he didn't discover the pleasures of bottarga until he was a young man. He says it's one of his favorite ingredients, not just for its depth of flavor, but also for the depth of its history.
"This is one of those ingredients that is so ancient," he says. He tells a bit of "the long story behind it" to customers. As for the flavor, he says, "It's very hard to describe." But I like one way he says it: "It's like an adventure."
He buys the darker, stronger-tasting tuna version, bottarga di tonna, from Sicily via Buon Italia in New York City, where it retails for $155 a pound (the mullet, or bottarga di muggine, is $95.75 a pound at www.buonitalia.com).
He slices it thinly and cooks a little pile of pieces in olive oil with garlic, fresh parsley and lightly poached sun-dried Pachino cherry tomatoes, plus thin slices of fresh chili pepper.
Into that sauce goes the al dente spaghetti, and he tosses it all with a lot of toasted house-made and seasoned breadcrumbs, then finishes it with a drizzle of olive oil, more parsley and more slices of the bottarga.
It's a beautiful, simple dish, like pasta alla olio but with this fishy richness.
He has regulars who can't wait for him to put it on the menu. (His 11-year-old son, Nico, is so "addicted" to bottarga that "sometimes I have to lie to him" about having any on hand.)
And his version of the pasta dish made a new fan this past May: While filming a Pittsburgh installment of his Travel Channel show, "Bizarre Foods America," Mr. Zimmern and his crew wound up at Dish, and Mr. Savoia was asked to whip them up lunch. So he went to his cooler, grabbed the bottarga and served the Spaghetti alla Bottarga family style, which Mr. Zimmern much enjoyed (and made a Vine on).
I'm looking forward to continuing to learn about and play with bottarga and find places that use it. I just learned that Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District was getting in some mullet and tuna bottarga this week. Henry Dewey, who once did a bottarga-themed Sardinian wine dinner, says he can order it, but, "Not a whole lot of people know about it."
I found an interesting American company, Bemis & James, that harvests and cures the roe sacs of striped mullet from the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.
Mullet are abundant there, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of the roe sacs are frozen and exported to other countries to be turned into bottarga and karasumi.
But what Mike Lassiter and his partner are doing is making the bottarga themselves, with an artisanal process that results in a product that's been embraced by chefs, including Sean Brock of Charleston, S.C.'s, celebrated Husk.
They've been selling through a distributor for about a year and just got up their own Web shop at www.bemisandjames.com, where their bottarga/karasumi sells for $34.95 for a small shelf-stable package (2 to 3 ounces), $43.95 for a medium (3 to 4 ounces) and $54.95 for a large (4 to 6 ounces).
My little bottarga journey leaves me amazed at the things we humans will eat.
While we shared the bowl of preserved-fish-egg pasta on the copper bar at Dish, Mr. Savoia mused that there are two other edgy Sicilian delicacies that he'd like to sometime serve there.
One is cured tuna heart, which he's eaten before.
The other, he has not:
Cured tuna sperm sac.