Magical, Briny, Elusive: 1 Man’s Search for Italy’s Most Coveted Ingredient

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Photo: Geoffrey Gray

I first discovered the magical power of bottarga in the cramped basement kitchen of Simone Bonelli, a young chef who had moved to the East Village from Modena, in the province of Emilia-Romagna.

“It’s an act of bravery,” Bonelli said about the bottarga. Not every diner could handle the intense flavor of cured mullet roe, but those who did appreciate the taste, he said, were converts. If they saw bottarga on a menu, all other options seemed to fade away. Bonelli was a convert. He read about how the Phoenicians would remove the eggs of mullet fish, coat them in salt, and dry them in the sun for food. The process for making modern bottarga was precisely the same, the end result like biting into the ancient world.

Bonelli served the bottarga over bucatini, shaving it onto the noodles with slivers of radicchio for bitterness, golden raisins for sweetness, and pine nuts for crunch. When I tasted it for the first time, I could hardly see the bottarga though. The orange flakes were so small they looked like flecks of salt, but after the first few bites my initiation was over. Those golden-orange flakes were a saliva-inducing mouthful of brine and sea spray, subtle and yet rich, foreign and yet unforgettable. I had become a bottarga convert, too.

I had to have my own supply, but where to find it? The primary source of bottarga is Sardinia, in the Mediterranean, where the high salt content of the water is thought to make the fish more flavorful. I trekked off to the normal purveyors of high-end cured fish, only to come home and shave off those flakes and be crushed. Even a trip to Eataly resulted in disappointment.

“It is a problem with the bottarga,” Bonelli told me. “It is hard to get a good one.”

This summer, lingering around in the airport in Rome, I thought I had won the bottarga jackpot. There they were, those golden sacks of fish eggs from Sardinia, selling for half the price they did in New York. But upon opening the vacuum-sealed package and testing it, I’d invested in another stinker. What was happening? Where had all the magical bottarga gone?

To root out this mystery, I called John Magazino, known around the city for importing white truffles. Surely, Magazino would know where to find the most pungent bottarga. He gave me a name and an internet address. I expected to see a name of a small port of town in Sardinia on the website. Instead, the name I saw sounded familiar. “Sarasota Bay, Florida,” it read.

“The best mullet in the world right now is definitely coming from Florida,” says Seth Cripe, a winemaker and bottarga junkie who founded Anna Maria Fish Company on the Gulf Coast. Having grown up with fishermen and romanced by the ancient lure of the bottarga, Cripe started playing around with curing ovarian sacs from local mullet and found the eggs to be cleaner and fuller than those in the Mediterranean. “The water around here [on the Gulf Coast] has a real clean bottom, real sandy, and that’s where the mullet eat,” Cripe says. The Med is also so over-fished that Italian producers are constantly in search of ovarian sacs and have them frozen and shipped to Sardinia either from Cripe’s company or others in Florida or Brazil. Even when properly stored, dehydrated, and stored in vacuum-sealed bags, the bottarga can oxidize quickly, darken in color, and lose flavor. One difference in his treatment is salt. Many Italian producers use sea salt to cure the mullet roe. Cripe uses kosher salt. “The sea salt, I find, has a metallic taste,” he says. Cripe sent me a sample from Florida to try, and his bottarga had a color that was deep and golden. The flavor also had more pop and wasn’t briny or strong, but subtle, bright, and irresistible.

“Once you get a taste for it, you get addicted to it,” Cripe says.