I just realized that although I had promised you this long ago, I still haven’t told anything about our weekend among friends in Cecina, San Vincenzo and Livorno, travelling the length and breadth of the beautiful Etruscan Coast, in Tuscany. Yet three weeks have passed already, the tan and the salty tang of the sea are slowly fading away, and I am already missing it badly.
Our story begins at noon, while we were driving along the seafront of Livorno, in my tiny white car in one of the hottest days I remember, I’m sure it was at least 40 ° C under the sun. We were looking for the central market of Livorno, a tiny spot where to leave the car and the perfect place to have lunch.
A combination of heat, sea smell, sun and holidays made us very euphoric, we were talking about cookbooks – what a surprise. The fact is, we were not talking about those cookbooks you might need during a seaside holiday in Tuscany – like 101 ways to cook the oily fish – no, were talking about those cookbooks you would plunge into in front of a fireplace with a cup of Earl Gray, wrapped in a wool tartan blanket. The book was Nose to Tail Eating – A kind of British Cooking, by Fergus Henderson.
Fergus Henderson is the British chef who opened, in 1994, the St. John Restaurant in Spitalfields, London: located in an old smokehouse, the restaurant looks spartan, with bare walls painted in white and black details in contrast. The menu left everyone in awe just from the beginning: bold yet simple. It’s a nose to tail menu celebrating all the less noble parts of the animals, enhanced in tasty unpretentious dishes, created with wit and patience.
Emiko met him in Melbourne and was fascinated by his direct and ironic manners. She recommended the book to Regula and me, both England lovers, saying we would have loved his writing, as well as the recipes. She was right.
I haven’t eaten at the St. John (yet) and at the moment I’ve just read the introduction of the book and a few pages, but it was enough. I mentioned the introduction… well, the introduction to the new edition of the book was written by none other than Anthony Bourdain, another writer who knows exactly how to use his words. Tremendously charming. Bourdain had already praised Ferguson with enthusiasm and fondness (I don’t know if I can use the word fondness with Anthony Bourdain, well, sort of…) in his book, A Cook’s Tour. After only five pages of introduction, I began to save money for a future dinner at St. John. But here’s what struck me:
Ask any chef of any three-star Michelin restaurant what their favorite single dish to eat is and you will often get an answer like ‘confit of duck’ or ‘my mother’s pied cochon’ or ‘a well braised shank of lamb or veal’. These were the dishes that first taught many of us to cook, the absolute foundation of haute cuisine. Nearly anyone – after a few tries – can grill a filet mignon or a sirloin steak. A trained chimp can steam a lobster. But it takes love, and time and respect for one’s ingredients to deal with a pig’s ear or a kidney properly. And the rewards are enormous.
And now you finally can understand what this digression was for. Those words brought back to my mind Fulvietto Pierangelini, dirty hands from cleaning the fish and eyes as bright as those of a child, telling us his ideas about fish into the kitchen of Il Bucaniere (The Buccaneer of the title), his restaurant. He was dealing with a skate, a fish considered poor and typical of the fishermen cooking tradition. He was skillfully cleaning it and telling us – or rather showing us – how you need passion, time and care to cook a poor fish.
Fulvietto used the very same words with which Bourdain praised Ferguson’s cuisine: it is easy to steam a lobster or to impress with an oyster, but it takes time and you need to know how to do it to bring out the best from the traditional poor fish, the staple of the fishermen’ diet. When you respect the ingredients you have and cook them with patience, then the results are incomparable, you get real food, wholesome, full of flavor, unusual. The pasta with skate was just like that, as was the fillet of bonito wrapped in pork net, which won the Tutti pazzi per la palamita competition.
I got to know Fulvietto and his restaurant when in May I visited San Vincenzo for the Etruscan Coast fish food festival. He made a bonito fillet wrapped in pork net and served it with wild mushrooms from the coast pine forest and the most delicate mashed potatoes to go with: inventive, tasty and deeply rooted into the Tuscan tradition. He had me at the first bite, and I promised to come back, and not alone.
So I did: since we were committed to spend the weekend trying the most amazing food of the coast, I phoned Fulvietto and booked a special lesson on the poor fish of the local tradition. Chance had it that the lesson happened on the very same day when the final match of the European Football Championship took place. Italy was playing, so every Italian in town was sitting in front of the tv, alone or with friends… we arrived in San Vincenzo on a Sunday afternoon in a silent and unreal calm. That made the experience even more amazing: just imagine, a restaurant on beach all for us, at sunset.
Zizi and Ivan explored the town, found a nice place to enjoy a vegetarian dinner and the sight of Italians supporting their team (alas!), while Emiko, Marco, Karin, Regula, Bruno and I reached the Bucaniere in the sultry afternoon, with a remote thought about the temperature we would have faced in the kitchen. Fulvietto caught us off guard: we’re ready for the lesson. Would you like to be in the kitchen or on the boat? We looked at each other… where? the boat? really?
After 5 minutes we were leaving our shoes unattended on the dock. I stepped staggering into the boat, and as soon as my bare feet touched the floor, dry and salty, warmed by the sun, I reminded those few early mornings I spent as little child fishing with my father and my uncle. Blissfulness, happiness.
I could have pretended to be a diva, lying on a boat with sunglasses, enjoying the splashes of water that every so often were refreshing me, one hand resting gently to touch the sea…
But my true nature came out every moment, at every jolt of the fishing rod I dived (so to speak) to take pictures, to capture the reflections of the scales of the fish, eager to sample that freshly caught oily fish, horse mackerels.
I remember that my father and my uncle used to catch horse mackerels during summer, but I had never eaten them this way. They are so simple, they are cooked without even being opened or cleaned, with some fresh herbs to soften their taste, just a few minutes in a pan with a dash of olive oil.
Fulvietto served them as an appetizer, to open a dinner on the beach with the soft sound of the waves and the music of Bruce Springsteen and Sting (it seemed made on purpose…). Deliciously made, they kept the salty flavour of the sea, light and fresh: they were amazingly good because you could taste the respect of the ingredients, the simplicity and the sustainability.
Ristorante Il Bucaniere
Viale Guglielmo Marconi- 57027 San Vincenzo (Livorno)
Tel. 335 8001695