Raw Food – The Real Food Guide
Looking over her shoulder to talk to another stall holder, the fish vendor continues to expertly fillet a fish with a razor sharp knife. Another rapidly chops a whole fish into cutlets for his customer. Tiny, silver anchovies are scooped up onto scales. A huge, dark bluish sword fish is draped on a counter next to shiny piles of octopus, squid and cuttlefish… It’s a boisterous, bloody and odoriferous atmosphere. The chatter, banter and shouted requests blend with the sounds of knife-sharpening and carcasses slapping onto chopping boards. The result is one loud, homogeneous, happy noise. We are at The Market: the heart of Mediterranean culture.
Our fascination with the old Mediterranean food markets is on many levels. Found in the older parts of towns, many have survived intact over the centuries and are architectural curiosities. The active, vibrant buzz of a large group of people communicating, haggling and trading is stimulating. Visually, there is the curious spectacle of so many different species of dead fauna displayed in all their bloody, and sometimes hideous glory. We frequently discover different species of fruit, vegetables or spices unknown in our culture. But most importantly, some of the freshest, finest and cheapest food and beverages are served up at the cafés and bars either attached to, or near these markets.
This age old scene, occurring in most Mediterranean villages, ports and cities, has long since disappeared from most of the new world countries. Here, amazingly, it survives in spite of the new wave of hyper shopping malls.
The freshness of the foodstuffs is inspiring. In fishing port markets you will be looking at fish caught the night before and landed that morning. Even inland, it has been trucked to the market straight from the boats. The stalls do not back on to refrigerated cool rooms, and animal carcasses hung in the early dawn will be sold, one way or another, that day. The herbs, fruit and vegetables scream Fresh! The Mediterranean housekeeper demands it.
A staggering variety of cured meats, cheeses and other processed foods can also be found but, raised as we are in the supermarket culture, the novelty of a good meat market is hard to beat. Whole, skinned baby lambs, teeth bared, eyeballs boggling, a little tuft of wool left at the end of their tails. Beautiful game birds strung and hung. Whole, skinned rabbits. Cows feet, pigs feet, and the hairy bottom half of goats legs tied together in bunches – (to stop them running off?). Skinned lambs heads. Benches full of kidneys and livers. Brains – (holding a last thought?). What looks suspiciously like bulls’ testicles, slit open to display their quality – (virility?). Stomach linings lie in heaps. Drained intestines hang on nails like long spaghetti loops – and so on. Nothing hidden or disguised in plastic wrap here. Raw food! The Mediterranean people, as with many other old world cultures, do not have the need to delude themselves about what they eat.
The tourism industry does not promote these markets, and some are definitely not for the faint hearted. But I would urge travellers who wish to experience the essence, the daily rituals of a local culture, to seek them out. They are at their busiest early in the day, tending to close mid-afternoon. Some only operate on certain days of the week. Local advice may be necessary. They are clearly marked on local maps and are usually located in the most interesting and colourful part of town.
Sardines And Other Small-Fry
The humble sardine is cat food and fish bait where I come from.
The Mediterranean people have long known that this strong flavoured and oily fish is beneficial to their health, and consider it a tasty snack. We new world folk ‘Down Under’ however, while we will happily open a can of sardines when hungry and pressed for time, consider fresh sardines (and herrings and anchovies) to be unfit for human consumption. The fresh sardine is widely un-available in New Zealand and Australian fish retail outlets. These small fish are to be found in abundance in the coastal waters of both countries but there is a distinct preference amongst the majority non-indigenous and non-Mediterranean people, for rather bland (here described as ‘delicate’) flavoured fish. While the indigenous people and most foreign migrants enjoy all varieties, size seems to be very important here. It is quite the opposite in Mediterranean climes, where small, even diminutive creatures of the sea, the land or the air become succulent morsels for consumption.
In New Zealand however, there is one unique exception to this ‘big is beautiful’ rule. Each year, early spring heralds the arrival in the rivers throughout the land, of a tiny, translucent fish known locally as ‘white- bait’. They are heading up-river from the sea to spawn, having located the river mouth by the taste of the fresh water as it ebbs out into the ocean. Seldom exceeding 6cm.(2¼in.) in length and in appearance more like eel fry (which, in Spain are a delicacy), it stirs a fervour in the population almost akin to that of rugby. Almost! It fetches up to NZD$90 per/kg.(2¼lb.), an indication of its popularity. On the first day of the permitted season, good keen ‘whitebaiters’ can be seen throughout the country along river banks and at the mouths of rivers, often comfortably seated, watching for the little critters to cross their white marker boards in the shallows. That is the time to position the net. Whitebait travel in shoals, which are not always large. Patience, a good deal of luck and local knowledge seem to be the requirements for a successful catch. They are traditionally served as follows:
In a bowl, mix in 2 eggs with two good handfuls of fresh, whole whitebait.
Season with a little salt and pepper and spoon the mixture into an oiled or buttered pre-heated pan.
Cook quickly to a golden brown on both sides.
Serve between two buttered slices of fresh bread.
Their flavour is described locally as delicate, but I would generously describe it as “subtle”!
While bemoaning the absence of the tasty sardine ‘Down Under’, I have come to accept this cultural preference for subtle, or delicate, flavoured fish. However, whenever I reach Mediterranean shores I inevitably search out my fix of char-grilled sardines. A dish so simple in its execution, yet so delicious that I can’t go past it to the more complex methods of serving them. (They are at their best and fattest during the summer months.) Sometimes at a beach-side bar, I am lucky enough to find them cooked in the old manner as follows:
Moraga De Sardinas On Spits (Espetones)
Sprinkle several scaled, cleaned and gutted sardines with rock salt and skewer them, across their middles, on a long stake. Prop the stake up in the sand close to the glowing embers of your previously prepared wood fire, grilling alternate sides of the fish until the skin is charred.
They make great finger food.
Here’s a version of grilled sardines with a little twist, that should convert the staunchest non-believer. If you do not have access to a barbecue, an oven grill is an acceptable second best. (To serve 4)
8 fresh small sardines, cleaned and de-scaled
75 ml/3 fl oz olive oil
Juice of one lemon
5 ml/1 tsp ground cardamom
30 ml/2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaved parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Wash the fish under running water, making sure all the scales have been removed.
Wash the inside of the fish as well.
Pat dry with absorbent paper.
In a bowl, mix together the oil, lemon juice, cardamom and chopped parsley.
Spoon over the fish and rub in with the fingers.
Season with salt and pepper.
Cook the fish under a preheated hot grill for about 3 minutes per side, basting with the flavoured oil.
Grill until the skin is charred and the flesh is white and flakes easily with a fork.
Remove to a warmed platter and pour the remaining oil over the fish.
Serve garnished with lemon slices.
Australia is home to many Mediterranean migrants, mostly Italian, and they have had a great influence upon Australian cuisine. However, their efforts to commercialize the sardine (of the variety sardinops neopilchardus) for human consumption, has been largely unsuccessful.
We lived in Perth, Western Australia for a number of years and were witness to an effort by an Italian fishing family to introduce the fresh sardine to the Australian public. The Mendolina family, from Italy, had been fishermen for generations back home. Migrating to Perth, they continued the same tradition with some success. The sons, coming of age, shared in this success and worked hard at the business with their father. They had long been aware of the abundance of sardines and anchovy in the sheltered waters inside the offshore reefs and Islands that protect Perth from the furies of the Indian Ocean. They must also have been aware of the Australian’s distaste for them. However, driven by their knowledge of it being an excellent food, its ready availability and sensing a potential niche market, the sons set out to win the hearts and stomachs of West Australians with the sardine.
From our perspective, we were delighted to be able to order fresh, grilled sardines at restaurants and hotels when they came on the market. A tad expensive, but nevertheless, the real thing. They had our support. The Mendolinas then bought themselves some automated filleting machinery to target the supermarkets with frozen and crumbed fillets, and started canning them as well. The writing was on the wall. Gradually, the Australian public’s distaste for the humble sardine began to reflect itself in the diminishing sales to restaurants and cafés. Whether the frozen fillets and canning was an effort to save the venture (they canned an excellent anchovy too) I can’t say, but it wasn’t long before whole sardines were replaced with frozen fillets at the restaurants. For me, that is not what sardines are about and now I have to travel all the way to the Mediterranean to find this tasty little snack. Oh well! Any excuse.
Interestingly, the Australians also serve up fish they call whitebait, but it is nothing like the New Zealand one. It is more like Smelt, young fish, and is longer at 7-8cm. (3in.). It is similar to the true, small Spanish boquerone. Unfortunately, they are usually served deep fried …!
It is possible to catch herrings on hand lines or with rod and reel from sheltered beaches both in New Zealand and Australia, and they make a worthy substitute. If you have the right gear and the right bait, it is also possible to catch plentiful squid off these same beaches. Ahhh calamare! But that’s a different story …!
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009