Alf in Italy, Eating in Abruzzo Part 2 – Fruits of the Adriatic SeaJun 17, 2015
The coast of Abruzzo is washed by the azure water of the Adriatic Sea. In summer the wide sandy beaches are extremely popular with locals and visitors. The beach establishments are open, umbrellas and lounges spread across the sand in orderly rows, bathers are enticed by the warm shallows of the Adriatic and everyone on the beach is working on the perfect tan. The sea doesn’t just provide a pleasant distraction during the warmer months it is, of course, the source of a major part of Abuzzese cuisine. You could say that they are “Tutti pazzi per la cucina del mare.” All crazy for the fruits of the sea. Naturally there are many traditional ways of cooking fish developed over the centuries by housewives and the fishermen themselves.
Sandra’s family are just as enthusiastic about going out together to eat fish as anyone else in Pescara and like all Italians they are willing to travel if there is going to be a great meal at the end of the journey. There are a multitude of restaurants supplying local fish specialties along the Riviera in Pescara. This evening Sandra’s sister Paola and her partner Simone are taking us out for a fish meal with family and friends. We are heading south to the Adriatic shore at Fossacesia to the south of Ortona. Early in the evening we set off toward Francavilla al Mare. The narrow road toward the sea winds along a ridge. To one side there are intermittent views of the urban spread of Pescara, ahead glimpses of the sea between houses and trees. The hills are draped with vineyards and ploughed patches of grey brown, heavy, limestone clay soil which takes on a slightly purple hue in the soft light of dawn and dusk. There are variegated green wooded swatches, a wild contrast to the order of vines, olives and ploughed furrows. I am reminded of a Francesco Paolo Michetti painting. Working during the late nineteenth century he captures the essence of life in Abruzzo at that time. As his studio was in Francavilla many of his works illustrating peasant life are set in this landscape. In my mind I match the colours and forms in his paintings to the country we pass through. The same hills, same colours, the same glimpses of the Adriatic. But now the hills have different clothing. The urban advance of greater Pescara is giving them a new character. Michetti’s sheep and shepherd girls are long gone. The rural is being overrun by suburban housing. Stark white, red tiled, large, squatting on the ridges to steal views of sea or mountain. Paola and Simone live below the ridge, nestled into the hillside surrounded by trees, but still with an expansive view of the Maiella massif.
Now down from the hills we continue through Francavilla which is a great example of the Italian version of the concrete coast. To an Australian it’s small scale Gold Coast. Beach side villas, apartment buildings and hotels. The best example of where someone has committed architecture is a group of low rise apartments spread along Viale Alcione by the shore. They are right out of a nineteen fifties sci fi comic. The basic cuboid concrete form is disguised by curves and protrusions to fool you that they really have a rounded flowing form. As they are bordering the sea we need to be reminded of this by having chimneys resembling the funnels of ocean liners of the era, proudly mounted on the roof.
Soon we are back in the countryside skirting Ortona and on through gently hilly agricultural land, through seaside San Vito Marina, along the coast passing beneath the magnificent hilltop medieval abbey, San Giovanni in Venere to the coast at Fossacesia. We park the car. Daylight is done as we walk to the shore. Ahead there is an insecure looking gangway leading out over the still sea. Light from beachside houses plays on the water. The walkway connects the land to a very DIY looking, almost giant spider like, structure built on stilts above the waves. Ropes are attached to long wooden arms which stretch across the water. Is that a net suspended from them? Light from the structure softly illuminates the water below. Inside this shed on stilts are many happy groups, chatting, eating and drinking. The strange structure is not a typical beach side restaurant. We have come to a Trabocco.
A Trabocco is a traditional fishing platform found along the Adriatic coast from Pescara all the way down to Vieste on the Gargano Peninsula, the spur on the heal of Italy. Trabocchi were designed so that fishing could take place even when the weather was too wild to take boats out to sea. Often they were built by farmers who preferred the safety of the land to the dangers of the sea. A net supported by long wooden arms was lowered into the sea and raised when hopefully full of fish. Now mostly abandoned, many Trabocchi have, with typical Italian ingenuity, been restored and converted into restaurants. Trabocco Pesce Palombo where we are about to have dinner was abandoned for ten years, it now operates during the summer months as a restaurant.
The ten of us will bravely tackle ten courses. These are not ten mean spirited, profit maximising courses thought up by chef foisting share plates onto the innocently trusting diner. This is traditional Abruzzese, generously plated, trencherman sized, celebratory seafood feasting. This will be a serious meal requiring determination and staying power. So we will need some help to lubricate our eating. Enrico guides us in the right direction. The have the best rose’ in the world here, Cantina Tollo’s Hedos Cerasuolo made from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Of course it’s the best. It’s vinified from locally grown Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes at a winery close by. And everyone knows that this is one of the great red Italian wine grapes. One day this secret will be recognised everywhere. The Piedmontesi might have Barolo but they have not tasted Montepulciano d’Abruzzo at it’s best. If they did they would give up in despair.
So our meal begins to arrive course by course. First fritti, tiny fish, like our whitebait, presented in a paper cone, quickly fried, crisp, lightly salted. Perfect to wake up the appetite. And of course give you a thirst for more Cerasuolo. Next we are brought calamari salad, then mackerel, called “sgombro” in Italian. The tomatoes that are served with it provide acidity to offset the rich oiliness of this fish. Following on, we are brought “polpette di sardine”, fish balls made with potatoes and breadcrumbs and to continue the extravaganza, cuttle fish. At this stage in the eating marathon we need to take a break so we pour wine and take our glasses out onto the gangway. Now that it’s completely dark we can gaze over the calm sea to the shore. Light spills from the trabocco highlighting the rippling water. The booms, ropes and nets standout, illuminated against the night purple sea and sky.
We return to the table for “sagne, ceci e cozze”, wide hand-made and cut strips of pasta, with chickpeas, mussels and sweet red peppers. This type of dish combining produce of both land and sea is known as “cucina terra e mare”. And is a common way of blending ingredients from these two sources along the Adriatic coast.
Next to my delight is one of my favourite dishes, a zuppa, a warming, nourishing not quite a stew, not quite a soup that is one of the great ways to cook a variety of seafood and fish in one dish. I especially adore it when the fish have been cooked unboned. The bones make it a little messy and a little more trouble to eat but impart an additional level of intense flovour. Now a soupy saucy dish like this just has to be finished by absorbing the last drops left in the bowl with a chunk of great chewy, crusty bread. This wonderful concoction, brilliantly coloured, smelling of the sea and profound in the complexity of flavours is known along the Italian Adriatic shore as “brodetto”.
From Marche to Molise, from Chioggia to Termoli, each fishing port has its own version of this famous dish. The simplest way of introducing it to Anglophones is to say that it is similar to the French bouillabaisse. That will give you the idea of a variety of fish cooked in an almost soup. Naturally Pescara has its own version. Originally “brodetto” was cooked by fishermen on board their boats, using the least valued, but often tastiest part of the catch, small bony fish that contributed profound flavour. These fish often had no market value. Late last year Enzo, Sandra’s brother in law, sent us an article from a Pescara newspaper explaining the history of “Brodetto Pescarese”. This is only one version of the story. My research has unearthed others, but all essentially similar.
Of course the fishermen of the past who originally cooked this dish worked from sailing boats and cooked the “brodetto” in a terracotta pot on a charcoal burner. To begin, the fish (up to ten types of fish and seafood were used. See the list below.) and ten to fifteen dried sweet peppers were sautéd in two hundred and fifty millilitres of extra virgin olive oil. The peppers where removed to a mortar and pestle and mashed with half a cup of red wine vinegar. This went back into the pot to form the “sugo”. Each type of fish was then added in order of the time it took to cook each one. When they were all in the pot it was covered with the lid and let cook for fifteen minutes. When it was ready the captain blessed the “brodetto” calling the name of “Gesu Cristo” and served himself first. The cooking and eating was done in the prow of the boat under the shade of the sail.
When Sandra was a young child in Pescara the fishermen sold fish for “brodetto” in a wooden tray called a “scafetta” and I have seen them doing the same in the fish market in Trapani in Sicily. In Vasto, an ancient town to the south of Pescara, there is naturally a different version of the dish. Vasto is set on a hill overlooking the sea and when the fishermen were carrying the “scafette” up to the town they would meet local farmers walking in the opposite direction with vegetables and would trade fish for vegetables so the “Brodetto Vastese” includes parsley, celery, garlic, basil and green peppers. This version is cooked less than the Pescarese and so has fresher flavours. The traditional version from Pescara never included tomatoes according to some recipes.
There is a keen rivalry between the two towns over which has the most delicious “brodetto”. Naturally, each town as is the norm in Italy claims the best version. In a very telling example of how seriously Italians take their food, last year in Pescara a symposium was held to demonstrate the differences in local versions of “brodetto”. As well as a chef there was an artist and a philosopher to explain the historic, geographical and cultural background to the various versions of “brodetto”.
An example of the Italian passion for discussing food with enthusiasm and gravity.
So we continue with fried fish, and supposedly “spigola arrosto”. Can we tackle whole roast fish? No, we cancel the “spigola”. But we do find room for dessert. I am almost immobilised by the amount I have eaten. The Italians have a solution to this problem of course. A small digestive. The habit of sipping on “un digestivo”, often intensely flavoured, almost always bitter, after a substantial meal is one of the great Italian contributions to civilisation. You take small sips, continue the table conversation, digestion is improved and the alcohol warms and relaxes. Tonight a bitter “digestivo” will not be our choice. We order grappa. Outside the night air is warm, reflected light dapples the sea, the soft shape of the hills behind the shore are an almost phantom presence. I walk along the gangway. Is it really gently swaying?
Here is a list of fish for “brodetto” Pescarese. I have left it untranslated as there is often no Australian equivalent: Rospo, Scorfano, Polpetto, Gattuccio, Razza, Ragnolo, Testone, Mazzolina, Aragostine. There is an absolute prohibition on blue fish, such as sardines and merluzzo is also never permitted. Sandra makes a wonderful “brodetto” at home and in her classes. Now it won’t be Pescarese or Vastese, it will be “brodetto Melbournese”, because it’s made with fish available in Melbourne markets. Depending on availability she uses a combination of: at least 3 small fish: choose from red mullet, silver whiting, leather jacket, small bream, a small gurnard, a monkfish fillet, banana prawns, mussels and calamari. Sandra’s version of this dish is also adapted to the Aussie aversion to seeing fish heads as part of their meal and having to battle with fish bones.
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)