Archive for Venetian Food
Update from the innards of the hapless marine creatures who keep us alive.
You may recall my heartfelt ode to the fish inside the fish which will never see daylight again (either one of them). Evidently this ode is going to have to be put on a continuous loop.
Lino was cleaning some hyper-fresh seppie not long ago, and I heard the clarion call from the kitchen: “Hey, look at this.”
One seppia’s last hors d’oeuvre was a minuscule sole.
Then there was the day we bought a batch of moli, as they’re called here, otherwise known as blue whiting, or Melu’ or Micromesistius poutassou.
They’d been having a real feed, wherever they’d just been.
I suppose I’ll have to stop this now. It’s no news that smaller fish are eaten by bigger fish. It’s just that… I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they’re swallowed whole. But then again, would I expect them to be ground to paste and spread on crackers?
I have nothing positive to say about Carnival, except that it lasts a relatively short time. “Relative” is relative, though, because this year will hold the longest Carnival ever: January 26-February 12, or eighteen days, or almost three weeks. Zounds.
Of course, compared to the Old Days, it is short. Back then, Carnival could last six months. So? Lino says that if the city could make it last from January to January, they’d do it.
Actually, there is one thing which I love about it, and that thing is kids. The neighborhood tykes with their painted-on whiskers and frilly tulle princess costumes and especially their fistfuls of confetti (here called coriandoli).
Erudition alert: Why do we call them confetti and the Italians say coriandoli? Here, confetti refers to the almonds covered with a carapace of sugar, given to guests on festive occasions and colored accordingly (weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, First Communions, etc.).
In the most ancient celebratory days, it was coriander seeds which were used in sweets called confetti, presumably because they had been confected. Documents attest that at weddings or Carnival during the Renaissance, sweets (confetti) containing coriander seeds were often tossed festively at fellow revelers.
In 1875, Enrico Mangili, an enterprising engineer from Crescenzago, near Milan, decided to sell, as a substitute for real coriander-containing sweets, the tiny disks of paper left over from the perforated paper used by the silk industry. Voila’! Symbolic coriander/confetti which were cheap and, as we might say now, rigorously recycled. I can imagine with what enthusiasm the city’s pastry-makers greeted this innovation. If they were inclined to throw anything, it probably wasn’t sugared.
In any case, as you see, the two terms underwent mitosis.
So far, I haven’t seen costumes or makeup, but the Carnival spirit has already begun to simmer along via Garibaldi. Fritole and galani are already on sale, and I’ve heard the distant cries of tiny swarming humans. And they’ve left their gladsome spoor along calli and campi. There is no day so dull that it could not be brightened by these bits of colored paper.
I’ve decided that these snippets are the mystic spores from which Carnival germinates and eventually fruits, producing great harvests of masks and fritole and galani.
To which I say, throw more.
Lino is ruthless when it comes to fish. If they’re not fresh, they don’t deserve to live. Or be dead. Or anyway, be for sale.
He recognizes every symptom; as someone who has spent his life fishing in the lagoon, he knows virtually every creature, its habitat, its life story (pretty much the way he knows people), and he especially knows when the fish on sale in the Pescheria is — as they say — “tired.”
Think about it: The fish is dead, but only then does it begin to tire out. But apart from the philosophical convolutions of the point, even I can recognize fish that’s been on the ice too long. It looks worn, faded, sad; it looks like it’s been waiting in the rain at midnight for a bus that it is slowly realizing is never going to come.
So it was a happy moment at the market the other day when Lino stopped suddenly. If he had little control-panel lights they all would have been flashing “Seppie! Seppie!” And the “Seppie!” lights only flash when they are “Fresh! Fresh!”
Then a separate scary little light begins to flash: “Must Buy! Must Buy!”
So we did. A kilo of demonstrably not-tired critters came home, and Lino began what is one of his most favorite activities in the world: Cleaning fish. Catching them is the best, of course, and eating them is good, but if you want to see a happy man, you need only look at him standing at the sink sending scales flying everywhere, or at the least (as with the seppie) eviscerating them.
The best moment of all, and the reason I’m writing this little announcement, is when he pokes around to see what they’ve been eating. If there’s nothing in there, they almost certainly have been fish-farmed. They’re still fresh, but they’re not wild.
But seppie aren’t farmed, so their stomachs are a little diary of their previous few hours. I won’t list some of the ichthyological beings he has found, but the other day inspired a call from the kitchen. ”Hey, look at this!” I went to see what “this” was.
It was a baby mormora (Lithognathus mormyrus). The mormora is one of my favorite fish, and I’ve seen plenty of fingerlings of various species flitting around the shallows, so its smallness wasn’t a novelty.
But I’d never seen one of these. I felt a little sorry for it — it looked a little like it might be blinking slightly and murmuring, “Where am I? Was all that just a bad dream?”
But I never express fraternal feelings toward fish anymore around Lino. Fish were created to be eaten. If the seppia hadn’t swallowed it, something or someone else would have. You might as well feel sorry for an ear of corn.
At least I’ve been able to give the little squirt a decent memorial.
In my last communique, Easter was tapping on the windows asking to be let in.
Now it has passed, leaving the usual signs — peace, joy, and crumbs. I have the feeling that the crumbs are going to last the longest.
There are crumbs of a colomba, the Easter dove, the traditional spring stand-in for the Christmas panettone, in the general form of a bird and covered with almonds and bits of pearl sugar. Crumbs of the hollow chocolate Easter egg strewn among shards of its busted hulk, crumbs of a small chocolate-covered cake in the form of a bunny, with a fragment of an ear. There is still a small bin of chocolate eggs, and another whole colomba in the form of a flower frosted in pink. But you know what? I’m sugared out.
The best thing I’ve eaten since last Sunday’s feast of roast lamb and assorted sugar-bombs was set on the table last night — bought, transported, and prepared by the indefatigable Lino.
First, we had seppie in their ink, which we’d bought just-caught from the fisherman that morning, and which had passed the afternoon simmering in their black essence. We sploshed around in it with chunks of polenta, the old-fashioned kind Lino likes to make in his mother’s copper cauldron — it requires 40 minutes of almost constant stirring. These two items alone would have satisfied most mortals.
But best of all, we had something I had always heard of but never tasted: castraure (kahs-tra-OOR-eh). These are tiny artichokes, in this case being of the violetto di Sant’ Erasmo breed, but they are more than that: They are the very first artichoke, cut from the plant in order to allow its fellow ‘chokes to prosper.
You’d be right in guessing that “castraura” has something to do with castration. Linguistically, it does. Physiologically, it makes no sense, but let us not dwell on the details.
My impression is that they have become something of a minor culinary myth, in the sense of being apotheosized to the point where to meet the demand (or to justify the price), there are more castraure offered in the Rialto Market than the last reported total number of pieces of the True Cross. For there to be that many castraure, even assuming most of them come from hothouses all over Italy and not simply from local fields, there could scarcely be enough land left to grow a bouquet of begonias.
Castraure are small, as you might expect, but so are its subsequent siblings, which are called botoli (BAW-toh-lee). As far as I can tell, there’s no way to tell them apart, just by looking at them. If you have the chance, then, go buy them from the farmer, like Lino did. He saw the little morsels cut from the plant just for him, so no debates about their provenance.
You can eat them grilled, or saute’d in garlic and oil, or raw, sliced paper-thin with oil and salt and vinegar. Or raw, whole. Just make sure there isn’t any wildlife running around among the leaves. Trivia alert: Technically, they’re not leaves, and they’re not petals, either. They’re bracts. It’s a word which won’t get you very far in the kitchen, but at least now you know.
Or you can eat them breaded and fried, which is what Lino did. I’m not a huge fan of frying, since there seem to be more than 8,000 ways to do it wrong and only one way to do it right. Also, frying seems to blunt or distort the flavor of the object fried. But there was no bluntage last night.
Our little castraure were tender enough to eat whole, stem included, and best of all, they were bitter. It’s a purposeful flavor, stronger and more complex than the everyday artichokes I already love. Certainly stronger than the later-blooming botoli. If you don’t like bitter flavors, whether simple or complex, you should abandon your dream of the castraure because they will not compromise or ingratiate themselves, not even for you.
I admire that in a plant.