Mediter­ranean catch

Rick Stein re­tastes the seafood de­lights of the Med’s Span­ish and Ital­ian sea­ports

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

ON the ferry into Tra­pani on Si­cily, I got a mes­sage on my phone say­ing wel­come to Tu­nisia: that’s how close North Africa is. There is plenty of culi­nary ev­i­dence of in­flu­ences from across the wa­ter — fish cous­cous and pine nuts and cur­rants in savoury dishes — but Si­cily is also ev­ery­thing that ev­ery­body loves about Italy, only more so.

It’s beau­ti­ful: there are kilo­me­tres of un­spoiled, deeply at­trac­tive coun­try­side; it has won­der­ful food, great cities and, for the tourists at least, ex­cite­ment, thanks to an ever-present though il­lu­sory sense of dan­ger. The num­ber of times peo­ple have said to me: Is it safe? and I have replied, in a well-heeled-trav­eller sort of way and with a great sense of sat­is­fac­tion: Oh, not too bad, are many.

Palermo is stuffed with or­nately dec­o­rated 18th­cen­tury houses, palaces and churches, most of them gen­tly fall­ing down. The sense of ro­man­tic de­cay is ev­ery­where. We stayed at the sea­side sub­urb of Mon­dello, where many mafia bosses have their vil­las, and ate oc­to­pus, cala­mari and sword­fish.

We went out fish­ing with a gi­ant of a man who re­called the Mediter­ranean in the 1960s. He said: ‘‘ Then, there was plenty of fish but no one had money. Now there’s plenty of money, largely through drug traf­fick­ing, but no fish.’’

La Vuc­ciria mar­ket in the cen­tre of the city was de­light­ful. I ate tiny snails, gath­ered from wild fen­nel stalks, with olive oil, gar­lic and pars­ley, and mar­velled at the ex­ten­sive se­lec­tion of poached bulls’ penises at a nearby deli counter.

The mar­ket in Cata­nia was sim­i­larly ex­cit­ing, the the­atri­cal­ity of Ital­ians so en­dear­ing. Ev­ery­one was shout­ing, ca­jol­ing, de­mand­ing while sell­ing their wares, par­tic­u­larly the sword­fish and tuna sell­ers with mas­sive slices of red and translu­cent mar­ble-white fish. There was a shell­fish stall sell­ing sea urchins, mus­sels and clams, and some­thing I’d never seen on sale be­fore: limpets. Th­ese, they ex­plained, I had to eat raw with lemon juice, which I did. There was one counter with a dis­play strewn over crushed ice: small red mul­let, sil­ver bream and bass, sar­dines and green sea­weed, all ap­par­ently at ran­dom and look­ing rather like a Jack­son Pol­lock paint­ing.

We found a fish restau­rant on the side of the mar­ket where we ate tiny prawns dredged in flour and deep­fried, grilled sword­fish with salmoriglio and spaghetti von­gole. As a cook, what I like about the Si­cil­ians is their ab­so­lute loy­alty to the qual­ity of raw ma­te­ri­als. Some­one once said: ‘‘ In France food is all about the ge­nius of cooks; in Italy it’s about the glory of God.’’ MY next trip was to­wards the end of June, to Ma­jorca. I first went there in the early ’ 60s with a friend from school, the first trip I had taken with­out my fam­ily any­where. I worked in a lit­tle break­fast bar in Cala Mayor, just out­side Palma, fry­ing eggs and chips in olive oil. I loved it.

But I wasn’t look­ing for­ward to go­ing back. It is much more built up in the south now, but get away from the Palma area — which is a lovely city with old houses with first-floor bay win­dows, a beau­ti­ful cathe­dral dom­i­nat­ing the har­bour and great shops — and you en­ter an­other world. They’ve come to terms with the enor­mous eco­nomic ben­e­fits of tourism, along with its down­side of end­less cafes sell­ing Bri­tish beer and piz­zas, by open­ing up the cen­tre to peo­ple who want to un­der­stand what rural Ma­jorca is like.

I was taken by our guide, Do­minique Car­roll, to a moun­tain restau­rant called Es Verger, just be­low the Castell d’Alaro. Af­ter a splen­did lunch of wood-fire-roasted lamb, we hiked up to the pre­cip­i­tous cas­tle with a large num­ber of Ger­man walk­ers. No tourists on the is­land in the ’ 60s would have been aware of this glo­ri­ous land­scape of moun­tains and val­leys. I was ex­tremely sur­prised at how good the food was. Most of the pop­u­la­tion came across from Cat­alo­nia when the Moors were blood­ily ejected in the 14th cen­tury, so al­though many dishes are sim­i­lar to those in Spain, oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly those built around so­brasada (pork and pi­men­ton sausage), are very much lo­cal. Dishes such as chicken with so­brasada, pasta and even var­i­ous fish dishes are made dis­tinc­tive by it.

I must also men­tion pa amb oli: bread with oil. To­mas Graves has writ­ten a whole book on the sub­ject and in­deed has a rock band of the same name. We met him at a restau­rant fa­mous for pa amb oli, Bar S’Hostal at Mon­tuiri.

Like good rock ’ n’ roll, he says, it’s easy to get sim­ple things wrong, and he couldn’t stress enough the im­por­tance of this sim­ple idea to Ma­jor­can cul­ture.

He took a big slice of fairly stale, rus­tic bread, grated a juicy tomato on to it and sprin­kled it with olive oil and salt. I liked To­mas. He was a wor­rier, par­tic­u­larly on the mod­ern diet of the is­lan­ders. Even the gyp­sies are get­ting fat, he said.

I went to Deia, where his fa­ther, Robert Graves, had lived for more than 50 years. Gertrude Stein had ad­vised him that Ma­jorca is par­adise if you can stand it. The town and all the west coast of Ma­jorca is in­deed that, with moun­tains com­ing dra­mat­i­cally down to the sea. Robert Graves’s house on the road into town was rather dis­ap­point­ing, though. It was be­ing ren­o­vated into a mu­seum of his work. I sup­pose I ex­pected a place in the hills — old, al­most An­dalu­sian, with white walls and an in­ter­nal court­yard — so in­tense have my ro­man­tic thoughts been of his life here, sur­rounded by writ­ers, artists and colour­ful peo­ple, over the years since I read Good-bye to All That.

The good­bye was his leav­ing of Eng­land for Ma­jorca. On my way through the Mediter­ranean I kept bump­ing into the rep­u­ta­tions of au­thors in self-ex­ile from their homes, nor­mally in north­ern Europe, and thought with some hu­mour about how un­likely it was that any of the lo­cals had read their work.

On the way to An­dratx, on an in­cred­i­bly wind­ing road from the hills down to the bay be­low, was a restau­rant where I had some of the best gam­bas (rosy-pink prawns) cooked with sea salt that I have eaten, cabra­cho con ce­bolla (ras­casse or scor­pion fish with onions), and a great rice and fish soup with al­li­oli. I’m not go­ing to tell you where it is, you’ll have to work it out for your­self. CAT­ALO­NIA was my first trip to any part of the main­land around the Mediter­ranean. I headed straight for the Bo­que­ria mar­ket in Barcelona, the mar­ket by which all oth­ers could be judged. I no­ticed on the in­ter­net some­one de­scrib­ing it as like go­ing through heaven’s doors. I think it’s some­thing about the beauty of the build­ing it­self. It has an or­nate en­trance door­way, with a colour­ful hang­ing crest at the top of it, say­ing Mer­cat St Josep La Bo­que­ria, and a glass roof. Its el­e­gance in­spires the stall­hold­ers to outdo each other in colour­ful and elab­o­rate dis­plays of their pro­duce.

This is my homage to Cat­alo­nia: cook­ing and eat­ing a fish stew on a boat with a group of lo­cal fish­er­men in Sant Car­les de la Rapita.

I must con­fess that I ar­rived con­vinced they had agreed to stage a pre­tend-cook­ing-of-the­fish se­quence for the tourists, but this was no pre­tence. I still marvel at the sim­plic­ity of the in­gre­di­ents the fish­er­man, Mayan, used to cook a dish of mul­let and gilt­head bream: olive oil, tomato, gar­lic and potato.

He took a big alu­minium pan and put it on a tiny stove in his wheel­house, threw in some oil, three or four cloves of gar­lic, just one large tomato, roughly chopped up, and some re­ally waxy peeled pota­toes, then added the fish, cov­ered ev­ery­thing in wa­ter, added salt and brought it to the boil.

At the stern of the boat two oth­ers were busy mak­ing al­li­oli in a bright yel­low mor­tar with a wooden pes­tle. As soon as the fish and pota­toes were cooked, Mayan poured off three-quar­ters of the broth and brought the pan through for us to de­vour with the al­li­oli, some lo­cal crusty bread and a very sim­ple cold white wine.

I’m feel­ing quite emo­tional while I’m writ­ing this: maybe it was the pun­gency of the al­li­oli, the sweet­ness of the pota­toes or toma­toes, the fresh­ness of the fish or the pro­saic lo­ca­tion on the stern of the boat un­der an awning to keep off the hot sun, but it was ab­so­lutely un­for­get­table.

And then there was more. He got a shal­low, round, bat­tered alu­minium pan, poured in some oil, threw in a few slices of gar­lic and a cup or two of bomba rice, some salt and the rest of the broth, brought it all to a boil and left it to sim­mer. He cooked it un­til it was dry but all the grains of rice were swollen with the fish broth, and he brought it through and we ate it with the re­main­ing al­li­oli. I feel very priv­i­leged to have been there. This is an edited ex­tract from Rick­Stein’s Mediter­raneanEs­capes (BBC Books-Ran­dom House, $59.95).

Net gains: Si­cil­ian fish­ing boats at rest; their catch of tuna, sar­dines, bass and bream is trans­ported, with a wealth of shell­fish, to the vi­brant city mar­kets, some of it find­ing its way into the pot of celebrity chef Rick Stein, in­set, who mar­vels at its variety and qual­ity

Fresh fields: Mouth-wa­ter­ing lo­cal pro­duce at Palermo’s Vuc­ciria mar­ket

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