On a hot summer evening in 1661 London diarist Samuel Pepys giving up all hope of a comfortable nights sleep, decided that there was really only one thing to be done – he went into his garden and drank huge amounts of wine and ate bread and butter with botargo until “very near fuddled”. Having sat though at least one similarly hot Melbourne night in a bath tub full of cold water with a book and a glass of wine to pass the time, I know exactly where he was coming from. I have never heard of, let alone eaten, the mysterious “botargo” he mentions, but maybe it was worth tracking down for next time there is a power outage during the summer? I little bit of research turned up the surprising fact that botargo was “the salted and dried roe of grey mullet and occasionally tuna”, not something I was likely to come across then.
Eventually, I did come across a small exquisitely labeled and accordingly priced jar of a fine orange-brown dust which claimed to be “Botargo” in an exotic location (a Scottish-Italian Deli in truth). How could one resist charms of an exquisitely labeled jar of exotic powder? Certainly on this occasion not me and later that night I had my first taste of botargo. Five minutes later, and several mouthfuls exotic dust sprinkled pasta later, I still really couldn’t understand why anybody would want to eat what was effectively very expensive salty, fishy nastiness. Just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken the first time, I did try to eat it on several other occasions, and at least once I served it to some long suffering friends (who thereafter referred to the event as “The evening of evil fishy nastiness”). Botargo it seemed was just another one of those food ingredients that looked and sounded exotic enough that I felt that I had to try it, but were just plain nasty. Obviously, Pepys and everybody else in the last four hundred years that said they liked it were obviously mad, lying or both.
Strangely enough though, I recently had a botargo epiphany and have come to the conclusion that not all salted and dried fish roes are created equal. Which was rather a surprise, after all botargo is just salted and dried grey mullet roe, a very simple product, so how could one version be delicious and another just plain nasty? Could it simply be another example of the universal law that everything tastes better on holiday? This was very possible; after all I ate these utterly delicious sparkling shards of botargo in a Spanish bar, drinking salty manzanilla sherry and watching the setting sun turn the Guadalquivir river into a sheet of molten gold.
From previous bitter experience I had learnt that I am a sucker for the whole “setting sun, rivers of molten gold” thing and that under these specific circumstances I am inclined to buy large amounts of retsina wine or obscure herbal-anise liquor combinations, only to regret doing to so when opening these holiday “treasures” back home in non-holiday reality. So obviously there was only one thing to do, I filled up my suitcase with vacuum sealed packets of botargo and took them back to Edinburgh where I was living at the time. During this trip to Scotland’s capital I experienced some of the most low, grey and moisture laden sky known to man, a perfect environment to test the deliciousness (or not) of holiday botargo.
Well obviously the wafer thin slices of botargo sprinkled with a few drops of olive oil and lemon juice and eaten in a dark Edinburgh flat turned out to be one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten and I finally worked out why the botargo I had eaten before was so nasty in comparison. The problem was that botargo although a relatively simply product to make is also quite an expensive product. I had originally bought low grade version of pre-shaved flakes in a jar, in effect I could have simply bought a jar of flaked fish food and saved some cash, that taste and texture would have been same. Good quality mullet botargo looks like two slim orange-brown to dark-brown sausages and has a translucent glow that makes it look more like a children’s sweet then an adult savory. It is an ancient product, with production occurring around the Mediterranean wherever mullet occur and under various names it is also produced in Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey and Senegal. An identical product is also made in Japan where is known as “Karasumi”. Given the wide distribution of production, surprisingly it is traditionally eaten in a restricted number of ways. In fact, in the vast majority of cases it is simply sliced finely and eaten without any other further preparation and it is consumed with one goal in mind as is described in this 19th century dictionary:
BOTARGO: A kind of salt cake, or rather sausage, made of the hard row of the sea mullet, eaten with oil and vinegar, but chiefly used to promote drinking.
It was the “to promote drinking” part that was relevant Samuel Pepys’ interest in botargo and this is how it is still widely consumed today. Botargo was popular enough in England that it was specifically mentioned as one of the few foreign caught "fish" that could be imported by foreigners in Acts designed to protect English fisheries. This is also outlined in:
An act for making Billinsgate a free market for sale of fish" 1699.
8. And for the better encouragement of
the fishery of this kingdom, be it further
enacted by the authority aforesaid, That
no fish (except stock fish and live eels)
taken or caught by any foreigners, aliens
to this kingdom (except Protestant stran-
gers. inhabiting within this kingdom) shall
be imported in any foreign ship, vessel,
or bottom, not being wholly English property,
and uttered, sold or exported to sale
in this kingdom, under the pain of the forfeiture
of such ship, vessel, or bottom, with
the tackle thereunto belonging, and of all
such fish so imported and sold, contrary to the true intent and meaning hereof….
9. Provided nevertheless, That this shall
not be construed to prohibit the importation
of anchovies, sturgeon, botargo or cavear,
nor felling of mackarel before or after divine
service on Sundays.
Botargo is often mentioned along with caviar, in effect they were not dismiliar products in a period before technology developed to preserve caviar in plump salty little balls of individual fish eggs. At this stage caviar would have been a less refined product, with a great deal more broken down eggs, resembling a sort of salty caviar jam. Part of the bill of fare for the Corination of King James II consisted of:
Sweet-meats; toil'd Sallet, hot; ; Pigs Collar'd, cold; Sweet-mcats; Beef a la Royal, hot; Crayfish, cold ; Bolonia Sauiagcs; Salad; Botargo ; Periwincles; 11 Chickens, 4 larded, hot; ; Dozen Glasses of Blumange; Collar'd Eels, cold; Rabbits frigas'd, hot; Sweet-meats; Sallet; Sweet-meats; Tansie ; Pullet Pyes, cold; Sweet-meats; 6 Pheasants, 1 larded, hot; Mangoes, cold; Hung Beef, Sallet; Cockles; Salamagundy ; a Chine of Beef; hot; Goofeberry and Apricot Tarts; souc'd Mullets, cold; Pudding, hot; Sweet-meats; Sallet; Sweetmeats...>
And even in the British West Indian colonies we find botago on the bill of fare at a Plantation banquet during the 17th century:
First then (because beefe being the greatest rarity in the island) I will begin with it, and of that sort there are three dishes at either messe, a rompe boyl'd, a chine roasted, a large piece of the breast roasted, the cheeks bak'd, of which is a dish to either messe, the tongue and part of the tripes minc't for pyes, season'd with sweet herbs finely minc't, suet, spice, and currans; the legges, pallets, and other ingredients for an olio podrido to either messe, a dish of marrow-bones; so here are fourteen dishes at the table and all of beefe : and this he intends as the great regalio to which he invites his fellow-planters ; who having well eaten of it, the dishes are taken away, and another course brought in, which is a potato pudding, a dish of Scots collops of a leg of porke, as good as any in the world, a fricacy of the same, a dish of boyl'd chickens, a shoulder of a young goat drest with his blood and tyme, a kid with a pudding in his belly, a sucking-pig, which is there the fattest, whitest, and sweetest in the world, with the pognant sauce of the brains, salt, sage, and nutmeg, done with claret wine; a shoulder of mutton, which is there a rare dish ; a pasty of the side of a young goat, and a side of a fat young shot upon it, well seasoned with pepper and salt, and with some nutmeg; a loyne of veal, to which there wants no'sauce, being so well furnisht with oranges, lymons, and lymes; three young turkies in a dish; two capons, of which sort I have seen some extreame large and very fat; two henns with eggs in a dish ; four ducklings ; eight turtle-doves, and three rabbits; and for cold bak't meats, two Muscovie ducks larded, and season'd well with pepper and salt: and these being taken off the table, 'another course is set on, and that is of Westphalia or Spanish bacon, dried neats" tongues, botargo, pickled oysters, caviare, anchovies, olives, and (intermixt with these) custards, creams, some alone, some with preserves of plantains, bananas, guavers put in, and those preserved alone by themselves ; cheesecakes, puffs, which are to be made with English flower and bread; sometimes tansies.
It is perhaps from this account by Richard Lingon that Samuel Johnson made the observation in his dictionary that "Portago" is described as a "West Indian Pickle".
Not everybody was keen on Botargo, the 17th century diarist John Evelyn described Bologna as:
This citty is famous also for sausages ; and here
is sold greate quantities of Parmegiano cheese, with
Botargo, Caviare, &c. which makes some of their
shops perfume ye streetes with no agreeable smell.
But in general, where there was 17th century boozing, there was Botargo and this remains true even today. Its salty-sweetness flavor is perfect for the taste profile of sake and fino sherry. It is also a friend to crisp, lager style beers. Happily its subtle fishy-sweetness means that it does work very well in a range of other dishes, small amounts enhancing the flavor of more bland base ingredients. Unfortunately, it remains an expensive product and I have rarely, if ever, seen it offered for sale in Australia. This means that the easiest and cheapest solution is to make the botargo yourself. Unlike many luxury products this is actually very easy to do at home with minimum fuss and bother. A fresh mullet roe will cost less then two dollars and will produce enough botargo to dress enough pasta for ten people. Fresh roes are available from many fishmongers, especially those to cater to a Greek client base. The only other cost is enough sea-salt to cover (approximately 500 gm per roe), what other luxury food item can be produced for so little cost and effort? Botargo itself is quite versatile, depending on how much is used it can be a dominant or background element in a dish. When briefly cooked (as in the pasta recipe given below) the fish aroma which some people find objectionable is neutralized and the botargo gives a savory earthiness to a dish, in much the same manner which occurs when cooking with Thai fish sauce or dried shrimp paste.
1 whole fresh mullet roe, with no tears or splits in the membrane
500 gm of sea salt (fine grade)
- place half of the salt in a shallow plastic container. Rinse and pat dry the roe, place on salt and cover with the remainder of the salt.
- place in refrigerator and leave for at least 6 hours to over-night.
- carefully remove the roe from the salt and rinse of salt, pat completely dry. Wrap loosely in kitchen paper and place out-side in full sun or place on a drying rack back in the refrigerator.
- at night bring the roe inside and place on a plate under a weighted board (a can of soup is about right) in the refrigerator. Change the kitchen paper if it becomes moist.
- repeat this process for six-eight days until the roe has hardened and has developed a golden-orange colour.
- the botargo can be stored in a sealed plastic container or bag in the refrigerator for up to a month or for up to a year at least in the freezer.
Thin slices of botargo can simply be served on its own with a few drops of extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, or as Pepys did on a hot summer evening, simply with bread and butter.
Botargo with pasta
500 gm spaghetti or bavette
50 gm botargo, finely grated
1 garlic clove, crushed
100 ml extra virgin olive oil (a lighter flavored style, such as Ligurian is best)
- cook pasta in plenty of lightly salted water until al dente.
- While the pasta is cooking, gently heat the olive oil in a deep pot with the crushed garlic. When the garlic starts to gently bubble and give its flavor to the oil, add the botargo and cook for no more the thirty seconds or so to avoid burning the botargo.
- At this point drain the pasta and add to the oil. Mix well and serve.
Botargo with bean crostini
500 gm cannellini beans
2 whole cloves of garlic
One sprig of sage or rosemary
Salt and pepper
One loaf of good quality crusty bread
100 ml extra virgin olive oil for the beans, extra to brush crostini.
For the beans:
- soak beans over-night and drain. Place beans in a heavy casserole and cover with water bring to boil. Drain beans and discard water. This step removes some of the bean carbohydrates that contribute to gas production and removes much of the scum that is produced when beans are initially boiled.
- place beans back in casserole and cover with water to depth of 3-4 cms. Add garlic and herbs and olive oil. Heat to boiling point, then turn down the heat to the lowest setting. Cook beans until tender and they have absorbed oil and liquid. Beans are cooked when soft, but not broken or pulpy. A good indication of this is when a hot bean is exposed to the air it splits open. Remove herbs and garlic clove and add salt and pepper to taste. At this point the beans can be made hours ahead of time and re-heated just before serving.
For the Crostini:
- cut 2 cm thick slices of bread, brush with olive oil and either brown under a grill or on a very hot griddle pan (which will give you attractive scorch marks on the bread).
- for each person place a slice of bread on a serving plate, top with warmed beans and lightly grate on botargo to taste. A very small amount of botargo is required to give depth of flavor to the beans.