If you happen to be born in the inland Tuscany, you do not have that much confidence with fish. Or at least that goes for me. I asked my grandmother for evidence since I wanted to understand which was my family tradition, and she confirmed that fish was eaten only on Friday, when you were supposed to fast, and it was mainly dried salt-cured cod. Then, when she married my grandfather, our relationship with fish slightly changed, because on Friday he would come back from the office with some fresh fish bought at the weekly market, smooth dogfish and little more.
Yet, I’d rather feast on fish than on meat, not to mention raw fish. That became clear to everyone last Saturday, when my dear friend Daniela got married: I sat with glistening eyes on the couch in front of the seafood buffet – oysters, red and gray shrimp, tuna tartarre – and they had to drag me away to bring me to the table, otherwise I would have spent the whole evening there until the cake had arrived (chocolate and raspberries, that is classy!).
My problem is that I am not a great fish connoisseur, so I am usually quite a bit intimidated when I approach to the cooking of the sea bounty: I know that with fish less is more, nevertheless I desperately miss some family tradition under my belt to make me feel confident even on the most slippery situations.
So, what am I doing in the kitchen with 2 kilos of bonito to clean and different ideas on how to use its oily meat?
The palamita festival is held every year at the beginning of May on the town streets and the seaport of San Vincenzo. The town celebrates not only the palamita (the Italian name for bonito) but also the bountiful catch of pesce azzurro – the oily fish, namely blue fish for the bluish reflection of its skin -, the ‘poor’ fish that has always been so typical of the peasant cooking of the Italian seaside.
I enthusiastically agreed to take part to the event for two main reasons.
First of all, I had not visited San Vincenzo in the last 10 years, when I stayed at my uncle’s house for a short beach holiday during the first year of university, spending most of my time on the book of contemporary history rather than on the beach… Yet, my mum still remembers with fondness her holidays in San Vincenzo as a teenager, and one of my best friends, Emiko, has dreamy eyes every time she tells me wonders of the bonito festival, one of Tuscany’s best food festivals (her words!)
Second, I knew the bonito only by name, but I have never had the chance to taste it, what’s more fresh and cooked by the best restaurants of the town.
So I took my tiny car and drove through one of the most breathtaking and bendy road of the region, the old road that cuts through Volterra and brings you directly from my town to the seaside, thrilled to see the blue sea appear on the horizon after such a challenging drive.
We tasted the palamita again and again, for the whole day, cooked by different chefs according to their own sensibility and taste, eight different dishes aiming to represent the deep blue sea and the typical produce of the Tuscan land. I thought that I would have not eaten palamita again before a few months, but the day after I was strolling along my supermarket aisles with 2 kilos of fresh palamita in my shopping trolley.
In every dish there was creativity and passion along with fresh fish and seasonal produce, you could taste the effort every chef put not only to impress the jury but to communicate their personal interpretation of the central role of palamita in the local food tradition.
On the way back home, back down the same winding road, I unusually turned off the radio to rest my mind, crammed with words and images. One day spent with real and passionate people was enough to understand how the palamita festival is an event that you must live with open heart and full stomach, an example to follow in the scene of the Italian food festivals, the place to go to taste real food, a place where one bite of grilled sardines tells more than a thousand words and better explain why the oily fish is a key product of the food and history of the Tuscan coast.
The Tuscan Sea Palamita is a Slow Food Presidium. You can read on the Slow Food website a thoughtful presentation of this precious fish of our coastal area.
A relative of tuna and mackerel, palamita (Atlantic Bonito) is a streamlined, pelagic predator with a large mouth with sharp teeth even on its palate, small circular eyes and a body ip to 80 centimeters long covered with scales that on the back are dark blue to sky blue-green, with silvery sides and oblique blackish stripes. It is caught from late-Spring to early-Summer and again at the end of September, when it weighs up to five-six kilos. The fishing area extends along the entire coast of the Tuscan Archipelago, with several favorable points such as Capo d’Enfola, near Portoferraio, on the northern coast of Elba, where until a few decades ago there was still a tonnara dedicated to processing this fish.
The meat of ‘palamita fish’ has a strong flavor with a delicate hint of acidity and can be cooked in various ways: grilled with fine herbs, oil and salt, or steamed with tomatoes, parsley, garlic, capers, olives and chili pepper (known as ginger in Tuscany). Yet the best way to savor palamita is preserved in olive oil: the larger fish are boiled after cutting them into fillets and kept under olive oil with bay leaves, pepper and the ever-present ginger. The result is very delicate fillets similar to tuna.
This is how the story end and the reason why half of my palamita is now preserved in olive oil in a shelf of my pantry.
Olive oil preserved palamita
- medium-sized bonito, clean and eviscerated
- coarse salt
- black peppercorns
- extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
- dried chilli
- bay leaves
- Clean the bonito, cut it into strips and let it boil into a pot of salted water for about half an hour. Use 80 g of salt per liter of water.
- Take the fish out of the pot, drain it and place it on a tray lined with paper towels or a tea towel. Let it cool and dry.
- Once cold, remove the skin, bones and all the dark parts.
- Put the fillets in glass jars with a few grains of black pepper, dried chilli and a bay leaf, then fill the jars with olive oil or vegetable oil, making sure that the fish is completely covered up by the oil. After about half an hour check the jars and pour in more oil if necessary to cover the bonito with at least an inch of oil.
- You can eat the fillets with cannellini beans and fresh onion.
The same procedure can be used for tuna.
Use your best olive oil or choose an organic vegetable oil.
Where and when
You are all still in time to experience the Tuscan coast and its tasty oily fish: this year the palamita festival will be held in San Vincenzo on the 5th and 6th of May, and I’ll be there to report this amazing – and infinitely tasteful – experience.
On Sunday, restaurants, bars, clubs and shops will offer to all the ticket holders a mesmerizing tasting samples of bonito, oily fish and local produce, cooked and presented in a thousand different ways, as well as a rich selection of wines.
- Read the detailed description of palamita on the Slow Food website, where you can discover traditions, recipes and history of our must appreciated and diffused poor fish.
- Visit the website of the Municipality of San Vincenzo dedicated to the event, www.palamita.com, check this year program, the restaurants taking part to the competitions, photos and news of the previous editions and find useful links to plan your staying in the area.
- The agriturismo that hosted us in San Vincenzo is Poggio ai Santi, a paradise on earth. It is an organic farm producing honey, extra virgin olive oil and wine, overlooking the hills and the sea. You will discover peaceful and tastefully decorated rooms, hidden among the pine trees. It is the ideal place to write a book, who knows…
- Loose yourself in the inspired photographs and writing of Festa della Palamita, a Tuscan food festival, written by Emiko for Honest Cooking. She’s already been there in the past year and now – even if she’s living in Australia right now – she would take a flight back to Italy just to enjoy the festival once more!