Discovering a cooperative of fishermen from Livorno that comes to my town once a week to sell the daily catch has given colour and variety to our weekly menu. I had already told you about this news here in our newsletter, influenced by Seaspiracy on Netflix.
Have you seen Seaspiracy? I was shocked, then I started questioning what I had just seen, and finally read one of Mark Bittman’s newsletters, ‘You deserve more than what Seaspiracy has to offer’. He is always spot on, balanced, and informed in his opinions. He shared an article by Alan Lovewell, from Real Good Fish.
Seaspiracy brought some very real and serious global issues to light but chose to tell only a sliver of the story, supported by sensationalism and an agenda. In response, let’s better educate ourselves on the issues. Let’s support domestic and local fisheries. Seek out seafood sources who can tell you where your fish comes from. Eat lower on the food chain and try underutilized species. And above all, celebrate and honor what the ocean provides.
If you are interested in sustainable seafood, it is a very good read.
The positive effect of having watched Seaspiracy is that it made me question the way I choose seafood. I decided that, if possible, from now on, I will buy fish exclusively from the cooperative of fishermen from Livorno. I consider this a privilege because that fish is not only fresh, sustainable, and local, but also more expensive. How do I balance out this choice? We simply introduced more legume-based meals during the week.
Seafood in my cooking repertoire
Given the difficulty of finding quality fresh fish in the Tuscan hinterland, my recipes have always been oriented towards a preference for meat and vegetables. But I felt that I was missing a part – maybe not central, but certainly relevant – of the Italian regional cuisine. So in the past few months, I’ve become more adventurous, cooking seafood that I was previously completely unaware of.
I often buy Livia suacia, Mediterranean scaldfish, for example, a local sustainable fish that is much cheaper than sole, but with the same delicate, firm, white flesh that steams in minutes. I confess that I sometimes steal a few morsels from her plate.
One of my favorite seafood preparations is fish soup, an emblem of coastal cucina povera.
Almost every Italian region that faces the sea has its own version, from the cacciucco from Livorno to the Ligurian buridda, from the Adriatic brodetto to the quatara from Porto Cesareo, in Salento, a soup that Tommy’s uncle prepared for us during our holidays there. Today I’m sharing a Tuscan fish soup, perhaps less famous than Livorno’s cacciucco but just as tasty, the Argentario’s caldaro, which apparently could be the ancestor of cacciucco.
Caldaro dell’Argentario, a Tuscan fish soup
Recipe developed in collaboration with Cecchi
The history of the Cecchi family began in 1893 with Luigi Cecchi, an extremely talented wine taster. The Cecchi soon became famous abroad for their skills. In the 1970s they moved to Castellina in Chianti, in the area historically renowned for the production of Chianti Classico, and there they began their winemaking adventure. In the following years, they expanded their production areas to include San Gimignano, where they produce a renowned local white wine, Vernaccia, and Maremma.
The wine we chose for today’s recipe is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a wine we really appreciate because it is cultivated not far from home. Vernaccia was born in a terroir, that of San Gimignano, where Cecchi has a strong legacy. It is a fresh and balanced wine, a perfect match to poultry and seafood dishes.
And now, to the recipe. For this Vernaccia di San Gimignano we prepared a Tuscan fish soup, a soup from Maremma to be precise, the caldàro dell’Argentario, to respond to this predominant desire for proper seaside holidays I’ve been having for a while.
Let’s have a look at the ingredients of this Tuscan fish soup
It starts with a classic soffritto for a fish soup: finely minced onion, garlic, and parsley shallow fried in extra virgin olive oil. In this case, there is also some hot chili pepper, that warms up the aromatic base of the soup. Hot chili pepper is an uncommon ingredient in Tuscan cooking in general but very appreciated in Maremma cuisine, which is rustic and robust.
Then add seafood.
It is important to have everything already on hand, cleaned and cut, in order to make the preparation of the soup easier. If you take care of cleaning the cuttlefish, set aside the ink sac, as you can make a risotto with it, or use it to dye fresh pasta noodles.
Octopus and cuttlefish are the first to go into the pot, as they need a longer cooking time. First, brown the chopped octopus and cuttlefish in the aromatic soffritto, then simmer in dry white wine, and finally cook them with peeled tomatoes, or a tablespoon of tomato paste dissolved in hot water.
Now add the bony fish.
Fish soups use whatever fish was left because too bony or damaged. So don’t feel intimidated if you do not find exactly the same fish. Ask your fishmonger, choose what is local, and what is in season. This is what is considered pesce povero in Italy, small fish full of bones, but that will give so much flavour to the soup. They only require a little patience when you eat them. Go for John Dory, weever, scorpionfish, gurnard, but also small hake, monkfish, or mackerel. Before starting the soup, it is important that they are all already well cleaned: remove scales, entrails, and rinse well.
Finish with cicale, mantis shrimps, an ingredient that is common also in Livorno’s cacciucco, and, in the classic caldaro, with patelle, limpets, the cone-shaped shellfish that are commonly found attached to the rocks of Argentario and Giglio Island. They are added to the soup with the seaweed still attached to the shell, which gives the caldaro a distinct sea flavour. Since I could not find limpets, I opted for sea lupins, smaller than clams but with tasty flesh. Once well washed to remove all the sand – I usually let them purge for an hour in a bowl of salted water – add them to the caldaro right at the end. They will open and release a tasty seawater.
It is inevitable to finish the bread, better if toasted and rubbed with garlic, an essential ingredient to define this a soup. It will soak up the fish broth, becoming the most flavourful morsel of the whole dish.
The recipe for caldaro dell’Argentario, today’s Tuscan fish soup, is adapted from Il vero libro della cucina marinara by Paolo Petroni, a classic seafood cookbook, with so many traditional recipes belonging to the Italian regional cuisine.
Caldaro dell’Argentario, Tuscan fish soup
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 white onion, finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon parsley, minced
- Chilli pepper
- 400 grams octopus, cleaned and cut into chunks
- 400 grams cuttlefish, cleaned and cut in strips
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 cups hot water
- 1 kg soup bony fish, scaled, gutted and well cleaned
- 8 mantis shrimps
- 400 grams sea lupins, or clams
- Fine sea salt
- 6 slices toasted bread
- Pour the olive oil into a large, shallow pot, then add the finely minced onion and garlic, parsley, and chili pepper to taste. Sauté over low heat for about 5 minutes, until the onion softens and begins to turn translucent, then add the octopus and cuttlefish, stir thoroughly, and cook for 5 minutes.
- Now pour in the white wine, and reduce completely, stirring from time to time. After about 15 minutes, when the white wine has evaporated, add the tomato paste diluted in hot water. Simmer on low heat, covered, for about half an hour, checking from time to time that it does not dry out too much. If needed, add hot water.
- Now add the bony fish, laying them side by side on top of the octopus and cuttlefish. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
- Finally, on top of the fish, add the mantis shrimp and the sea lupins, cover again and simmer the soup for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Then, turn off the heat and prepare the dishes.
- In each bowl, place a slice of bread, toasted and rubbed with a clove of garlic, and a ladleful of soup, ensuring everyone has his portion of octopus and cuttlefish, bony fish, one mantis shrimp, and some sea lupins.
More seafood recipes from the blog archive
- Gnocchi alla trabaccolara. Trabaccolara is a poor man’s dish, made with the demersal fish unsold at the market. This sauce traditionally accompanies large bowls of spaghetti or linguine, but you can also use hollow short rod pasta like paccheri or mezze maniche for a nice result: the flavors of the sea mixed with tomato fill up the pasta to a lovely effect. Today I used this dressing for fresh gnocchi.
- Spaghetti allo scoglio, seafood spaghetti. The seafood spaghetti, the first choice from a menu, is a dish that is often taken for granted, yet it still manages to leave a mark if well executed and made with fresh fish and high-quality pasta.
- Summer octopus salad with olives and pine nuts. Octopus cooks in a pressure cooker in less than fifteen minutes. It is tender and juicy: slice it and make a salad with it, along with potatoes and a lot of garlic and parsley, or, for a more refreshing version, with green olives and pine nuts.
- Stuffed squids with bread and pine nuts. Choose the smallest squids and stuff them patiently with a few simple ingredients: stale bread soaked in milk, parsley, stir-fried tentacles, and a handful of pine nuts to give flavour and a different texture. The sea taste is persistent, softened by bread and milk. Pine nuts add a surprising resinous taste: everything comes together to remind you of the balsamic air of a maritime pine forest, or of a lunch by the sea in the shade of hundred-year-old trees.
- Anchovy and breadcrumb cake. Anchovy is an inexpensive, sustainable fish, a health factor for consumers of all ages. Try it in this cake with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and parsley.