What kind of fool decides to contribute to a dinner in Teulada, Sardinia, by making his version of the favourite local pasta dish in Teulada, Sardinia? The same one that made a classic cassoulet for a born and bred Toulouse local in France. I figure that if you’re going to try and live like a local, you’d better be able to damn well cook like a local. Or at least make an attempt…
When we checked into our casa in Teulada, Sardinia, our host Antonio showed us around the charming apartment. In addition to the many thoughtful little extras he and his wife, Christina, provide for their guests (which you can see in this post), Antonio also left me a Sardinian cookbook and a packet of powder that looked a little like the spice turmeric, telling me that, as I liked to cook, this was the local specialty. Well, I love a challenge!
But it turned out, it wasn’t a powder at all, it was bottarga – salted, pressed, dried, and ground grey mullet roe. It might not sound that appetizing, but for seafood lovers its aroma is amazing and it has a very moreish quality. I knew I had tasted it somewhere before and then, after some research, I realized I had ordered it a few years ago in Sicily with some pasta, and, due to my literal translation of the dish, I remembered I had been expecting salmon-like roe not a powder!
The fact that I had tried it in Sicily first is revealing. It is now generally accepted that the technique to make the product was introduced to Sicily by the Arabs, having first been perfected by the Phoenicians. The Greeks, however, will dispute this. Maybe I should turn the comments off for this post…
The dried roe is a kind of a dirty orange-coloured slab which is also served cut into pieces and served with tomatoes and lemon juice. When it’s used for a pasta it’s generally ground to a potent powder.
Later, on our first night in Sardinia, I tried it for the first time on the island with vongole (clams) at Teulada’s best restaurant, La Grotta Azzurra. Wow! The simplicity of the dish, the perfectly cooked pasta, and just the right amount of bottarga… I had virtually inhaled the dish before the others had even wrapped their first mouthful of spaghetti around their forks. I knew I had to make my own version of it.
The classic, simple, fisherman’s version of the dish consists of spaghetti, olive oil (home-pressed, of course!) and a little chili, and the bottarga is left in a bowl on the table, so each person can vary the amount they sprinkle on their plate depending on individual taste.
Other recipes I read had all kinds of complications that to me added nothing to the dish, so I decided to keep it simple. Put the spaghetti on. Olive oil in a medium-hot pan with some slightly crushed garlic, cooked until lightly coloured then discarded. A tablespoon of bottarga added to the pan with some butter, some chopped parsley, and a tiny touch of peperoncino. Add the diced flesh of a couple of ripe tomatoes. Mix in the cooked pasta. Done.
That night we ate it again at another local restaurant Antonio had recommended, Sebera. It was just as good as the first night, but I have to confess I think that vongole is not really necessary to have a great spaghetti con bottarga, nor do I think that bottarga and vongole are a perfect match (although Lara thinks it’s sublime). I can only say this now because I’ve just left the island. You know, every guy there carries his own switchblade!
A few nights later our neighbours came over to cook some barbeque fish for dinner, and Antonio, Christina and their daughter Sarah joined us, so I decided to test out my spaghetti con vongole e bottarga on a local audience.
Here’s my version – locally-approved if the empty plates on the table are any indication!
- 500g (1lb) spaghetti (No.5)
- 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small knob of butter
- 1kg (2.2lb) small clams (vongole)
- 50g (1.75oz) packet of bottarga di muggine macinata (you may not use it all)
- 1 cup dry white wine for the pot, 1 glass extra for the chef
- 4 cloves of garlic, crushed slightly
- Good pinch of peperoncino (or dried red chilli), chopped into tiny pieces
- Bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook the pasta as per the timing listed with the instructions. It’s usually around 8 minutes for this size spaghetti.
- Back away from the olive oil bottle! Don’t waste good olive oil by putting it in with the pasta. It’s the rolling boil that stops it sticking together; adding oil to stop pasta sticking is a myth. Maybe an olive oil producer came up with that one…anyway back to the recipe.
- Heat the olive oil in a pan and sauté the garlic. Add the peperoncino and a handful of the chopped parsley.
- Take out the garlic and add the wine, clams, and a tablespoon of bottarga. Put the heat on high and cover the pan.
- Sip your wine. Wait about 4–5 minutes for the clams to cook.
- Discard any clams that don’t look like opening. Some say this is a myth. If some of these non-believers are at your table for dinner and are being disagreeable about it, give them those unopened clams to eat while you finish the dish.
- Drain the pasta. Toss with the clams and sauce. Add another tablespoon of bottarga.
- Serve the pasta family-style or individually, it’s up to you, but make sure there’s a little dish of bottarga on the table and a spoon for sprinkling it over the pasta. Because your guests will want more.