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