Archive for Fish
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We went out rowing the other afternoon, which is always a good thing but not exactly news. Other people might have been unenthusiastic — and in fact, we didn’t see anybody else out — but we don’t wait for the weather to sing its little Lorelei song. That’s a waste of valuable time especially in March, what with Lorelei being so skittish. We just go.
For a while, the most notable thing about the excursion was the faintly hazy, vague color scheme of the part of the lagoon where we like to go. Then the breeze began to get to me. It wasn’t so strong, but it was raw and insistent, which began to be annoying, like a crying baby in the apartment at the end of the hall. Part of the effect of the crying baby, as with the wind, is that there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. Things I can’t do anything about really, really annoy me. Just so you know.
But the situation became much more interesting when we ran the boat onto the exposed mudbank — the tide was out — so Lino could go exploring. I would have gone too, but wasn’t wearing shoes that would have made even the slightest effort to resist the squishy, waterlogged terrain.
And what he found were oysters. I knew they were out there because he’s brought them home before. Lagoon oysters on the half-shell were our antipasto for Christmas Eve dinner a few years ago, and they are delectable, not too large, not too small, and faintly sweet. One source states that this breed is known for its “unique tannic seawater flavor…and [is] considered excellent for eating raw on the half shell.” As I said.
To be precise, these unsung lagoon creatures are known elsewhere as the highly prized Belon oyster, the stuff of high-wattage chefs and cultivated feeders. Here, nobody cares about them anymore. Even less than not caring, nobody seems to even know they exist. Here the restaurants are fixated on clams…clams…clams…clams, like a stuck culinary record.
Oysters were once as common in the market as clams. A particularly Venetian habit, more firmly rooted than kudzu, is to exclaim “Ostrega!” (OSS-tre-gah) which means “oyster” in Venetian. (Italian: ostrica). It’s an all-purpose term that would instantly reveal you to be Venetian anywhere in Italy; in fact, it carries amusing overtones of charming quaintness to anyone not from here. It is one of those clever next-to words (like “hello” instead of “hell”) that people employ to avoid using a really serious and socially inadmissible word — in this case, “ostia,” which is the Communion wafer. Ostrega is close enough to get your meaning across without offense.
“Ostrega” is a flexible word which, depending on your tone of voice, can express a variously emphatic reaction from astonishment to agreement, disbelief, displeasure, wonder, delight, and so on. “Ostregheta” (OSS-tre-GHE-ta, or “little oyster”) is a gentler variation. I have a Venetian friend who will sometimes say “OO-strega,” which I think is adorable. I keep meaning to ask him if he invented this.
Back to the oysters themselves. One of the clauses in the numberless regulations governing fishermen (which began to be documented in 1270), as stipulated in 1765, stated that “To only the fishermen who personally exercise the laborious toil of fishing, should remain the usual freedom to go to the neighborhoods selling fish at retail such as eels, flounder, mullet, sardines….cuttlefish, clams and oysters in the permitted times.”
But now, as with so many things (such as papaline), they have fallen out of favor and I’m not sure anyone can say why. There seem to be fashions in fish. It can’t be because oysters are difficult to collect, because they’re generally easier than clams. Clams lurk beneath the sediments, but oysters — like canestrelli — are often found lying there on the muddy/sandy bottom, right out in the open, not even trying to hide. You can just pick them up, like Lino does, though back when they had commercial value men would take them by means of a cassa da ostreghe, more simply known as an ostregher (oss-treh-GHEHR).
An ostregher was a sort of baggy net weighted with a strip of iron which was tied to the stern of your boat, and which you would drag along the bottom as you rowed or sailed. Something similar, called a “cassa da canestreli” or “scassa diavolo” was used to take canestrelli (Pecten opercularis), as Lino often did when he was a lad; he sometimes shows me where, along the edges of the Canale del Orfanello stretching from the Bacino of San Marco toward the island of San Servolo. Or in the Canale del Orfano, from San Servolo to the island of La Grazia. Lots of people did this, just for themselves. Even now, a few people might still joke, when the vehicle you’re in (say, the vaporetto) is slowing down for no apparent reason: “Are they dragging a cassa da canestreli?” I imagine that most youngsters have no idea what they’re talking about.
Then the city outlawed this technique as damaging to the lagoon. You might say this was a good thing — it’s certainly fine as a concept, like peace on earth — except that it wasn’t damaging, and if it were, why was this method outlawed while illegal clamming continues, night and day, by people using a mechanized version of basically the same technique, leaving utterly barren, completely devastated tracts of lagoon behind?
Lino happily returned to the boat with a bag containing a batch of oysters and a lone canestrelo which he couldn’t resist.
All now frozen solid, awaiting their moment of glory in Lino’s next fish soup.
It turned out to have been, as the saying goes, an excellent day to die. For the oysters, I mean.