Archive for Fish

Mar
21

Seppie and friends

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No matter how bundled up these little pixies still may be, they say SPRING to me.

We went shopping this morning. Nothing dramatic, nothing involving jewels or cashmere or lambskin.  Just checking out the fish at the Pescheria this morning, and we struck paydirt twice.

One, we nabbed the first seppie of the season, a moment we’d been waiting for.  They cost more than I’d have wanted to spend (as almost everything does), but we brought them home and Lino is dealing with their destiny as I write.

We couldn’t resist them — or rather, we didn’t resist most of them, except for the bigger one in the foreground, second from left, covered in sticky ink. The young man casually threw it into the paper in his hand along with two of the others, and I said, “I don’t want that one.” He said, “They’re all the same size.” I said, “I don’t care, I don’t want it.” He said, “They’re all the same size.” Lino said, “She doesn’t want it, put it back,” and so he did. What did size have to do with the fact that it was DEMONSTRABLY older — and with fish, that doesn’t mean wiser — than the others? ( And by the way, it was not the same size, it was bigger.) I realize that every hour that passed, the young man would have found it more of a challenge to casually throw it in with somebody else’s order, but I don’t care. We got the good ones.

Two, we ran into two friends of his, which is always what one hopes when wandering the market.  M and C used to work at the Aeronavali with Lino, beginning as boys together (16 years old, more or less).  They did a little catching-up, mainly about wildfowl hunting (M’s passion since boyhood, but he has relinquished his weapons due to increasing bureaucracy), fishing (still at it, like Lino), and some random remarks about nothing.  Nothing is a very large and rich subject, and people can talk about it for quite some time.

I already knew M by name and by occasional sightings; I knew that he had been Lino’s favorite partner when they used to compete on pupparinos in the “interaziendali” races organized between different working groups (a team from the Gazzettino, say, and the ACTV, and other happy bands of working brothers).  “He was a wonderful proviere” (rowing in the bow) — “he had a beautiful stroke, it just lifted the boat up and then I’d carry it forward.”  Perhaps this makes more sense in Italian.  Anyway, the perfect pair.

They also ran into each other out fishing, or at work with whatever catch they brought in to give away.  “I’d have sole,” Lino said, “but M didn’t fish for sole, he went out for shrimp.  So he’d ask me how much I wanted for my sole, and I’d say ‘You’re kidding, right?’  So we’d just trade.  He loved sole.” Today M bought some sole, but it wasn’t for him.  “It’s for my cat,” he said.  “I also got some sardoni for me.”  (Engraulis encrasicolus, or European anchovy).

Lino thought that was funny.  “Give the sardoni to the cat, and you eat the sole!” he said.

“Nah…the cat won’t eat sardoni….”

Seppie ink trickling out from beneath the ice at the neighborhood fish vendor.  It’s like a moment from some horror movie as you approach the closed door, rendered less horrible by its lack of human characteristics.  But this is a tragic waste of precious ink.  Maybe it was the creature’s last attempt at self-defense. Or somebody was just careless with his squashy fingers as he rang up the sale.

M worked “inside” at the airport on the Lido, where construction was going on; Lino worked outside, on repairs and maintenance.  A young widow with a son set her sights on the even younger M, and the two married and have lived peacefully ever after, with the addition of a few daughters.  She was happy for M to be training and racing, which many wives are not. Many a modest racer has been forced to give it up because the wife wants him at home.  “At home,” if I understand Lino’s tone of voice, means something like “chained to the wall.”

C, however, was another case.  No fishing, no hunting; always to be seen with his father for company.  When his father died he latched onto M, and it may not need to be said that he never married.  “But he always said ugly things about M’s wife,” Lino recalled with some distaste.  M is a good guy and there was no known reason for anyone to say anything bad about her, either.  Except maybe (I hypothesized) he might have made a move on her which was rebuffed.  “I’ve thought that for years,” Lino replied.

When Lino left the company after some 37 years of service, C became head of the squad, a promotion that would have gone to Lino, but never mind, there it is.

I’m sure Lino could have told me more, but one can’t be writing Russian novels every day.  It’s enough to get the highlights, which when they concern people you’ve known since you were 16 can be plenty high enough.

An instant later, they were gone. Two instants after that, they were back. Then they were gone. I never knew pigeons could be so fussy.

Spring is now arriving at a brisk trot. Pussy willows at the market.

A very little peach tree beginning to bloom on the vegetable boat. Peaches never seem to be forthcoming, but the flowers are wonderful.

 

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Jun
19

Fishing for compliments

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The other day G. hauled home an estimated 20 kilos (20 pounds) of gilthead bream, and a surprise.

The other day G. hauled home an estimated  10 kilos (22 pounds) of gilthead bream, and an interloper which Lino immediately spied.

Our upstairs neighbor, G.S., now retired, finally has all the time he wants to go fishing.  I understand that this is the dream of many men, and he is living it to the full.

He sits in his boat on some expanse of water — naturally he will never tell us where, and Lino, a fisherman himself, will never ask.  He sets up three fishing rods, and with what appears to be superhuman talent always brings home something.  Often, many somethings.  Which he sometimes shares with us.

First, he passes our kitchen window, which is usually open except in the depths of winter.  He may call a friendly greeting, or Lino may already have heard him tying up his boat.  So G. will pause, and Lino will indulge in what seems to me to be lots of time discussing the day’s conditions, catch, and other occult particulars of the angler’s art.  Lino never fished with a rod (he prefers the leister, or what I simply call a “trident” even though it has many more than three prongs).  But he knows as much as anyone about the lagoon environment and the customs of its finny fauna. So they confer for as long as they feel like it, then G. goes around the corner and upstairs.

He estimated the catch weighed about ten kilos (22 pounds). And I don't think he came home because he'd caught every fish that was out there. I like a person who knows when enough is enough.

For quite a while, he would sometimes reappear (three flights of stairs, twice — what a guy) and plop a plastic bag of some of his fish onto the windowsill. And not just any fish.  Gilthead bream (orata, or Sparus aurata), sea bass, seppie, and assorted companions who made the wrong decision by thinking “Gosh, if the bream bit, it must be good. I think I’ll try it.”

He would briefly and modestly accept our praise and thanks.  Like anyone who does something really well, he considers most compliments to be mere statements of the obvious. I once complimented the wife of a trattoria-owner in our old neighborhood on her fried meatballs.  “They’re the best meatballs in Venice,” I said, thinking I’d give her pleasure. “I know,” she replied.  And that was it.  Once I recovered from the sensation of having missed a step going down the stairs, I realized that she couldn’t honestly have said anything else.  If she didn’t know how good they were, who would?

Back to G.

Matters have taken a new turn. He comes home, he passes the window, he shows Lino the catch, they talk, he goes upstairs.  Normal.  But the other evening, after a few minutes, we heard him call.  Then a plastic bag tied to a string mysteriously appeared, descending from above, framed in the doorway.

People still sometimes let down baskets to pull up whatever they need (everybody’s got flights of stairs), and more than sometimes they let down their bags of garbage and leave them hanging on a long cord for the garbage collector to retrieve.  (Except they won’t be doing that tomorrow, because the garbage people are going to be on strike.  Gad.)

I suppose if we lived on the third floor and he on the ground, he’d call for us to let down a basket, bag, tray, some kind of receptacle, and we’d pull up the fish, sometimes still thrashing. His generosity means that we now eat fabulous fish at least once a week.  But it’s beginning to be hard to keep up with him.  When somebody gives you eight or ten bream, which is one of the most valued fish in the Venetian culinary repertoire, you feel joy and gratitude and bursts of self-congratulatory health.  But you can’t eat eight or ten at one go, and the freezer is beginning to murmur in a discontented sort of way, probably beginning to consider staging a mutiny of the bounty.

But we have put our hand to the plow, as the Good Book hath it, and, as advised, we are not looking back.  If fresh fish is to be our fate, we will just keep on accepting it.

The magical bag silently appears, containing the interloper.

The magical bag silently appears, containing the interloper.

A little cagnoletto (Mustelus mustelus, or palombo, in Italian, or common smooth-hound in English).  It's a modest little shark and once you have eviscerated it -- you'll want to throw all that away immediately, the smell is pretty strong -- and skinned it, which is another major project, the flesh when boiled makes a delectable broth, and the fish itself has a very delicate flavor.  It's not unusual to see these in the fish market, but in restaurants they only appear as part of fish soup.  If ever.

A cagnoleto (Mustelus mustelus, or palombo, in Italian, or common smooth-hound in English). It’s a modest little shark and once you have eviscerated it — you’ll want to throw all that away immediately, the smell is pretty strong — and skinned it, which is another major project, the flesh when boiled makes a delectable broth, and the fish itself has a very delicate flavor. They can also be fried, or grilled, and I’ve just discovered an interesting recipe for cooking them in a tomato/anchovy sauce.  It’s not unusual to see these in the fish market, but in restaurants they usually appear, if ever, as part of fish soup.

Some days earlier, this was his gift: three gilthead, a suro, and a pesce persico, which is normally a freshwater fish but which not infrequently wanders out of a river and into the lagoon..

Some days earlier, this was his gift: three bream, a long slim suro, and a brownish pesce persico, normally a freshwater fish but which not infrequently wanders out of a river and into the lagoon.

The suro (Trachurus trachurus, or European horse mackerel) has the most enchanting colors, so subtle as to defeat my little camera.  As you can see, they're less fatty than the usual mackerel.

The suro (Trachurus trachurus, or European horse mackerel) has the most enchanting colors, so subtle as to defeat my little camera. As you can see, they’re less fatty than the usual mackerel.

The pesce persico (Tinca tinca, or tench) doesn't loom particularly  large in Venetian cooking -- it doesn't loom large, period -- but anything that's in the lagoon is fair game.  And as you see, the lagoon is crammed with fish.

The pesce persico (Tinca tinca, or tench) doesn’t loom particularly large in Venetian cooking — it doesn’t loom large, period — but anything that’s in the lagoon is fair game. And as you see, the lagoon is crammed with fish.

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May
02

Back to blogging

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IMG_0313 blog

I must go down to the blog again, to the lonely blog and the sky…..

More time has passed than I intended between my last post and this, though as usual many of the reasons had to do with putting down slave revolts in the technological departments of my life.  (Apologies to anyone offended by the word “slave.”)  My computer seized up.  The espresso machine has had a nervous breakdown.  Transferring my cell phone number from one company to another was an adventure within an adventure. My cloud backup service has gone into a semi-permanent stall.  My photos stopped uploading to Flickr. We’re still waiting for the boiler-repair company to come repair the repair of April 16.  The kitchen clock died.

But all this is no more preposterous or tiresome than what’s been going on all around the most-beautiful-booby-hatch in the world.  The past two weeks have seen the return of many well-worn themes.  If they were music, they would be familiar tunes — perhaps transposed into another key, or performed by different instruments, or converted from pieces usually played on a lone kazoo into swelling symphonic creations. But the same tunes, nevertheless.  They practically qualify as folk songs.

The ACTV is always prime territory for the absurd.

An annoying number of the turnstiles keep breaking at the docks on the Lido, causing commuters to miss their boats to work.  Sebastiano Costalonga, a city councilor who has made squaring away the ACTV part of his mission on earth, has pointed out that there are seven turnstiles at a typical London Underground stop, through which millions of people pass each day, while on the Lido there are 48 turnstiles, through which, on a really big day, perhaps 20,000 people will pass.

The ferryboats connecting the Lido to the rest of the world continue to fall apart and be taken out of service for repairs (one boat has been in the shop for nearly a year.  Are they plating it with rhodium?).

The personnel of the ticket booths went on strike for two days, April 30 and May 1, when storm surges of tourists were naturally expected to overwhelm the city, which meant that tickets were sold only by the individual on each vaporetto who ties up the boat at each stop.  You can imagine how many he/she managed to sell.  Or even tried to sell.

The company is 17 million euros in the red, but the ACTV drivers are the highest-paid in the entire Veneto region.  The ACTV is like the Energizer Bunny — it just keeps going.

IMG_0404 blog

IMG_0406 blog

On April 25, National Liberation Day, the city places laurel wreaths at important civic monuments. Here the wreath got as far as the plaque recalling the “Seven Martyrs,” but whoever was wrangling the wreath didn’t realize it was supposed to be right-side up.

Then there are the Illegal Vendors:  Whatever they’re selling, they’re everywhere, and there are more of them every day.

First (and still) were the West Africans, who sell counterfeit designer handbags from bedsheets spread on the pavement.  While this squad continues to proliferate, it has been joined by Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan vendors of gimcracks such as fluorescent darts which gleam when flung skyward and balls of gelatinous rubber which flatten when hurled to the ground, then re-form themselves before your eyes.

A sub-division of these ethnic entities has taken over the wandering sale of long-stemmed red roses, which used to be offered mainly from table to table in restaurants, but which are now available all day long in the Piazza San Marco, and environs. Illegal corn for the pigeons: After years of struggle, the city finally convinced the vendors with their little trolleys in the Piazza to switch from grain to gewgaws — this being the only effective way to limit, or even reduce, the plague of feathered rats which had passed the 100,000 mark and was still growing.  So now corn is being sold surreptitiously by the handful from the pockets of the red-rose vendors. Still, on April 25, a blitz by the police in the Piazza San Marco netted plenty of swag abandoned by the fleeing vendors, leading off with 1,408 roses. The day before that, the police got hold of 22 kilos (48 pounds) of illegal corn.

But these are temporary events. Stashes of illegal pigeon-corn have been found hidden in the garbage around San Marco.  Intermittent reports of these discoveries and confiscations, whether of goods or of people, imply progress, but they would be the intermittent reports of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. Uncollected fines have reached some three million euros; one illegal rose seller was reported to have laughed and shown some employees of a shop near Rialto his collection of tickets — five so far, one of them for 5,000 euros.  “Stupid police,” he said, “I don’t have anything and I’m not paying anything.”

The complaints of exasperated merchants and citizens have finally caused the city to increase surveillance by putting officers on patrol, from police in plainclothes to carabinieri in full battle gear.  But only on the weekend!  Still, there was plenty to do: Twenty-eight illegal vendors spread across the Bridge of the Scalzi were nabbed with their bags and sunglasses and camera mini-tripods! (I know from personal examination that the bridge is 40 steps on each side, so that comes to one vendor every 3 steps. But somehow it must be hard to see, because citizen outcry was needed in order to focus the city fathers’ eyes on it.)

Sometimes there are violent altercations between vendors, based on subtleties of territory and rights thereto — though the concept of someone claiming the right to something illegal is kind of special. Many are often without papers, so they’re already in tricky territory where the concept of rights is concerned.  One recent nabbee, from Senegal, was discovered to already have been sentenced to five months in prison, by the court of Florence.

The city council dusted off a year-old  proposal to issue residence permits (permesso di soggiorno) with points, like a driver’s license. It didn’t pass, for various reasons, some of which verged on silly: “What are supposed to do,” asked one councilor — “expel the women caretakers because they get a fine for illegal parking?”  But another summed up what everybody has long since recognized: “Even the police can’t manage to do much if there isn’t collaboration from the local politicians. The message which has been sent out is that here there isn’t the kind of determination there might be in other cities because of a misunderstood sense of solidarity.”  (Translation: We feel sorry for the poor foreigners.)

Speaking of illegal vendors, the mendicants from Rome who dress up as Roman centurions and pose for pictures near the Colosseum attempted to set themselves up here. Some of you might wonder at the congruence of fake Roman soldiers with fake swords and breastplates in Venice, but the tourist-guide association didn’t need to wonder.  It managed to drive them decisively out of the city in a matter of a few days.  Instead of police and carabinieri, why don’t we just pay the tourist-guide association something extra to clear out the illegal vendors of everything?  Or better yet, send them roses?

As Roberto Gervaso noted in his satirical column in the Gazzettino not long ago, “Our generals manage to lose even the wars they’re not fighting.”

The only antidote I know to all this is to go places and do things which only give pleasure.  And there are plenty of them, in spite of all the weirdity. All you have to do is pull the plug on that part of your brain that concerns other human beings. Here are some views of what we’ve done or seen that have made the past few days more than usually pleasant.

Lino isn’t looking for clams, he’s looking for scallops (canestrelli, or Chlamys opercularis), and it was a great morning to do it.

And he did surprisingly well.  These little critters reached their apotheosis that evening, fried.

And he did surprisingly well. These little critters reached their apotheosis that evening, fried.

My activity of choice is often to sit in the boat and look over the side.  It's pretty busy down there, what with crabs and snails and so on.  These two were moving right along.

My activity of choice is often to sit in the boat and look over the side. It’s pretty busy down there, what with crabs and snails and so on. These two were moving right along.

This is the first time I've ever seen this creature in the fish market.  The label here calls it "pesce sciabola," or saberfish, but I see that it is known in English as scabbardfish (Lepidopus caudatus).  It was brilliantly silver and shiny, just the kind of saber I'd rather not confront.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this creature in the fish market. The label here calls it “pesce sciabola,” or saberfish, but I see that it is known in English as scabbardfish (Lepidopus caudatus). It was brilliantly silver and shiny, just the kind of saber I’d rather not confront.
And despite all the rain in March, the wisteria has come out right on time.  Along with the laundry, and the trash.

And despite all the rain in March, the wisteria has come out right on time. Along with the laundry, and the trash.

Lilac is here so briefly that I took a mass of pictures.  Bonus: Lilac-shadow.

Lilac is here so briefly that I took a mass of pictures. Bonus: Lilac-shadow.

 

 

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This is a view of as much of the mass of fishermen as I could fit into my camera frame, as I look toward the Lido. It's like the Milan Central train station out there, but floating. People said that there were even more today.

This is a view of as much of the mass of fishermen as I could fit into my camera frame, as I look toward the Lido. It’s like the Milan Central train station out there, but floating. People said that there were even more today.

The diluvian spring seems to finally have wrung itself out and today we had sun.  We’ve had intermittent sun recently but it didn’t give the impression that it was sincere.

But suddenly, the sun was out.  Therefore the laundry was out — I mean, out rejoicing, not out wailing and repenting, and begging to be let back in, as it has been for quite a while. Small but delectable milestone today: Bringing in the laundry and smelling that sun-and-fresh-air aroma in its folds for the first time in 2013.  (Someone will tell me it’s nothing more than the detergent I’m inhaling, but they would be wrong.)

And more to the truly cosmic point, the seppie are out.  “Out” in the way that a solar flare could be called “out.”  A few years ago there were only one or two forlorn little seppie in the entire lagoon, and there were scarcely any to be had in the market, not even for ready money. It was a veritable drought of seppie.  Now we’re making up for lost time.

The past few days have seen what must be an underwater stampede of the little nimnods, swarming in from the Adriatic to spawn, because  out on the water that stretches from San Nicolo’ on the Lido up the wide canal that goes to Murano there has been a daily conglomeration of boats the like of which I’ve never seen, boats full of men fishing for seppie.  I have it on several good authorities that virtually every boat has been going home with something like ten kilos (20 pounds) of cuttlefish.

Then there are the insatiable seagulls, who are out there with the rest of the city, looking for chow.  You’ll see the gulls pulling their prey to some nearby surface in order to pierce the seppia’s body sufficiently with their beak to allow the extraction of the very hard-to-chew inner bone.  These pale-white ovals of various sizes can frequently be seen floating in the canals, and out in the lagoon, the marine version of the ox-bones flung aside by Viking gorgers.

Looking toward the sunset isn't the best moment to reveal the ranks of fishermen lining the Riva dei Sette Martiri, but perhaps this will give you a small idea.

Looking toward the sunset isn’t the best moment to reveal the ranks of fishermen lining the Riva dei Sette Martiri, but perhaps this will give you a small idea.

For the many boatless anglers, there’s plenty of room along the fondamente to strew murder and mayhem in the depths. It’s a virtual chorus line of men and children with fishing rods and buckets, and the stones are wildly bespattered with black stains, the parting shots from the truculent creatures unwilling to admit defeat, but whose sac of ink is impotent against the hooks and nets.  Of course, they themselves make no effort to resist the lure of whatever’s on the end of the hook, so no use crying afterward.  Lino once attracted scores of seppie merely by snagging a piece of white plastic onto his hook and pulling it through the water.  They thought it was a seppia, and they were coming to eat it too.  Little cannibals.

So spring doesn’t just mean peach blossoms and the dawn trilling of the blackbirds. This year, at least, it means hecatombs of eight-armed mollusks (technically, that’s what they are).  I’ll be kind of glad when it’s over.  It’s like the tulip craze or something, and only God knows who’s going to eat them all.  Nobody can consume everything that’s being hauled out of the water these days, and eventually all the freezers are going to be full.

Just one more thing to worry about.

First time I've ever seen a girl fishing, but she's doing all right too. I don't assume the ink-stains on the stones are all from her victims, but they show she's picked what's probably a good spot.

First time I’ve ever seen a girl fishing, but she’s doing all right too. I don’t assume the ink-stains on the stones are all from her victims, but they show she’s picked what’s probably a good spot.

And of course there are always plenty of old guys, like this one totally prepared with rod, bucket (some people just use plastic bags), and a very black and experienced volega, or net on a long pole. No wonder he's smiling.

And of course there are always plenty of old guys, like this one totally prepared with rod, bucket (some people just use plastic bags), and a very black and experienced volega, or net on a long pole. No wonder he’s smiling.

I managed to get two shots of this pair of boys before the smaller one very firmly told me "No photos." "Why?" I asked. "Because it makes bad luck," he said. "That's just a story he invented," the older one said, shrugging. But I left anyway. No point risking being thrown into the bucket with the seppie.

I managed to get two shots of this pair of boys before the smaller one very firmly told me “No photos.” “Why?” I asked. “Because it makes bad luck,” he said. “That’s just a story he invented,” the older one said, shrugging. But I left anyway. No point risking being thrown into the bucket with the seppie.

One Asian man couldn't be bothered to stop to put them in his bag; he just unhooked each one and threw it on the pavement, where they lay there slowly expiring, spewing and sputtering, till he got ready to collect them and take them home. Or wherever they were destined to end up.

One Asian man couldn’t be bothered to stop to put them in his bag; he just unhooked each one and threw it on the pavement, where they lay there slowly expiring, spewing and sputtering, till he got ready to collect them and take them home. Or wherever they were destined to end up.

IMG_0179_1 seppie

This was the first time I ever saw the iridescent dots on the tentacles. This is part of their extremely efficient system of camouflage, going very well with the iridescent stripes of blue-green which I know well from the fresh seppie in the fish market. But I was dazzled by the dots. I’m just sorry they turned out to be so futile.

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Categories : Fish
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