There’s no denying the cliche: returning to the sea is a bit like coming home. The other day I popped over to the Adriatic coast, Abruzzo, to attend to a couple of things and see some familiar faces. The rock barriers there in some places come right up close to the beach. I couldn’t resist the temptation to wade through a few feet of sea to climb onto one. Once over the top and seated on the other side, the side facing out to the sea, everything seems more quiet. The cautious mini crabs scrambling around beneath, the various small fish that swim around the barrier in different colored and sized schools, the tranquil sound of the easy waves that reverberate in the rocks, the hues of blue and green under the sun, the endless horizon, take away much of anything else on your mind. It’s where we come from. So I got a little wet. But despite it being on the cost, Abruzzo isn’t really a seaside region.
It is a necessary background though, the sweet-scented Adriatic – (nowadays rather more filthy than a few decades ago and flattened on its floor, far beneath the water line, from all the heavy fishing nets.) But just walk a few hundred meters away and there begins Abruzzo proper. Strong and gentle … and stocky. Beautiful, but not the beauty of, say, the Alps – that can take your breath away, if you’re susceptible to it, without, as it were, even trying. Abruzzo’s beauty is not for everyone. Every corner is not a picture-postcard as certain more famous places in Tuscany or the lakes in the North. It’s not snobby, not chic. Let’s say that if Saint Tropez or Portofino are for you, you probably will not find your earthly heaven here.
Its beauty instead offers you the best of itself. It will let you into its forests, rivers, mountains of pure rock, even its wooden fishing huts, ‘trabocchi’, which seem almost like expressions of fatalism on this coast of west Europe’s greenest region. Strong and gentle, that’s Abruzzo. It’ll touch something solid inside, if you are willing to let it.
As will many of its people, (although things are changing there as well. The bi-forcation of resources: socialism for the wealthy, a sort of corporate fascism for the rest of us. Oh brave new world…) The men in these parts after a certain age begin to resemble the territory from which they came, even when they emigrate. Their faces take on more and more the appearance of the shapes of the rocks and mountains, their bodies often become a bit like the trunks of trees, low but broad and strong. They grow old well. Women often posses more or less an infinite supply of physical energy and are loaded with practical intelligence, kind of like Madonna. Which is to be expected. They worked hard here, nothing for free. And they still work, when they can find work. You need hearty food for all that hard labor.
Uncle Silvio, Silvio is affectionately called by 99.7 percent of the inhabitants of his town – the last .3 percent not yet only because they moved in last Wednesday and don’t know him yet – is a classic Abruzzese. Honest, hard worker. Won’t ever try to screw you. We’re not in Rome. Here they still fight over who has the honor to pay the restaurant check, not the other way around. Uncle Silvio doesn’t eat fish, and rarely goes to sea. But the pretty hill-top village where he lives has a pure and sweet view right onto the Adriatic that lightens all the other burdens of life. Silvio is always ready to give you the best of himself and his cuisine. Authentic stuff, traditional flavors, of great substance. And calories. You may think, after eating lunch or dinner at his place, that eating is the main Abruzzesan activity during weekends. It isn’t. Digesting is. But with pleasure. And with a view of the Adriatic Sea, always present, a substrate on which the Abruzzo rests.
For the baked pasta:
360 grams of short, thick pasta (like mezze maniche or rigatoni, paccheri, etc.)
Salt & pepper
1 chunk of lamb, 200 grams 1/-
200 grams or so of ground round or mixed hamburger meat
2 cloves garlic
EV olive oil
1 bay leaf
2-4 chicken legs
1 bell pepper
2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper
white wine (about a glass)
…oil and season the legs and potato chunks, place them in a casserole and shove’em in a hot oven 170 degrees celsius or so. 10 min, then in goes the wine. 10 minutes, then in go the whole cloves lightly crushed, rosemary in peices but still on the branch and thick slices of peeled and cleaned bell pepper. 10min, check the birds and spoon over some of the sauce forming below in the casserole. 10 minutes or so more check again – they’re likely done. The kitchen by now will smell, as it does in Silvio’s, like… home. (Well, if you’re from the the central-south of Italy…)
Weekend recipe – Spaghetti with Bottarga di Muggine
The Mediterranean Sea. Its scent changes so from place to place. On the Central Adriatic coast it’s sweet and intense, brings an uncontainable joy on a sunny day. Cross over to the East, and in Croatia it assumes a slightly less domesticated, more metallic flavor – yet the sweetness and giddy pleasure contained therein remain. Closer to Turkey the scent is heavier, denser, offering a lush undertone to accompany the faint echoes of melancholy that are part of the region.
You can circle the whole of that sea and in every place the oder both above and below the waves changes, ever so slightly, from beach to beach, hilltop to hilltop, dive to dive. Yet there’s something consistent about those different scents, that changing flavor, particularly below the water. Bottarga di Muggine, (Cured Gray Millet Roe,) might be as close as you can get to capturing that something.
Its flavor, to, changes – but in time, instead of place. You put a sliver in your mouth and initially it’s almost unpleasant, the first instant seeming a bit like a waxy mouthful of the Mediterranean but before that happens the flavor opens up, becomes rich and textured and contained just enough. There’s metal, yes, but sweetness, fish and even a hint of fruit. But no one aspect is dominant, and the growing myriad of flavors somehow remain separate. So all at the same time you’re on the Adriatic coast on a sunny day, but also diving in Sardinia, taking in the sun on a Turkish beach, riding in a storm off the Southern French coast.
Maybe the best way to appreciate what an absolutely delightful flavor Bottarga di Muggine has is with a simple pasta, by itself or as I like it, lightly flavored with red garlic and its texture fortified with a bit of zucchini flower or small, firm zucchini, or sting beans, ecc.. Flavor some oil on low heat with the crushed garlic, remove, add the rough chopped flowers when the pasta is no more than a couple minutes from being done very al dente. Drain the pasta, keeping a little of the water from the pasta pot, and transfer the spaghetti to toss and finish its cooking – adding a little water as necessary, along with a little bit of the grated bottarga to flavor the oil further. Plate well using a soup ladle if you have to keep the noodles in a tight bundle and add the the rest of the grated and thinly sliced bottarga over top, sprinkle with oil…then enjoy your dive off the Italian coast.
200 grams of Rummo spaghetti
1 brined mullet egg sack
ev olive oil
2 handfuls of zucchini flowers
2 cloves of red garlic
see above. Grate some of one of the two egg sacks, about a third, and transparently thin slice the rest (use a mandolin if you don’t have a good knife or have trouble slicing so thin.)
link – Rummo pasta: http://www.pastarummo.it/en/