Sunday, 21 September 2014

Weddings and food in Sicily

Sicilian on a vespa, Palermo, Sicily
Mural on side of building, Palermo, Sicily
Sicilian eating ice cream sandwich, Palermo, Sicily
Brioche and gelato, everyone was eating these.
Prickly pears, Palermo, Sicily
Prickly pear, the vendor will peel it for you so that you don't get pricked.
Green figs, Palermo, Sicily
Green figs sold in boxes lined with fig leaves
Long zucchine, Palermo, Sicily
Long courgettes/zucchine
Large green cauliflowers, Palermo, Sicily
Giant green cauliflowers everywhere
sun dried tomatoes with pistachios, Palermo, Sicily
Sundried tomatoes with pistachios. These soft tomatoes tasted of the sun unlike the desiccated sulphur dried tomatoes we have in the UK.
Black olives with rosemary, Palermo, Sicily
Black olives with rosemary sprigs
Salted capers, Palermo, Sicily
I bought a ton of salted capers and caper berries
tins of sardines, Palermo, Sicily
Sardines are an important ingredient in Sicily, leading to  typical dishes such as pasta con la sarde, pine nuts and raisins
dried beans, Palermo, Sicily
Dried broad beans and la madonna
Fresh oregano, Palermo, Sicily
Fresh bunches of Oregano
Pine nuts and raisins, Palermo, Sicily
The pine nuts were longer than usual
Street trader, Palermo, Sicily
Salvo runs a lunch stall in the food market de Capo on the Antica sede dei Beati Paoli, selling battered broccoli florets, pumpkin in oil, grilled vegetables. For five euros, you can pick four dishes.
Sicilian children dressed up, Palermo, Sicily
Wedding guests
Sicilian calender, Palermo, Sicily

Sicilian children, Palermo, SicilySicilian children, Palermo, Sicily

aperativo, Mondello, Sicily
 Very 80s, fruit in a vase to go with my Americano cocktail
Cannoli,  Palermo, Sicily
Cannoli as in "Leave the gun, take the cannoli"
Sardines, Mondello, Sicily
Sardines at the port of Mondello
Wedding dress fashion show, Mondello, Sicily
Wedding dress fashion show
Ice cream poster, Cefalu, Sicily
 Ice cream sandwich menu
Tagliatelli with tomatoes and sea bream, Cefalu, Sicily
Tagliatelle with tomatoes and sea bream
Crema di cafe, Sicily
Crema di caffé, my addiction on this trip, a kind of coffee granita or slushy
Bruschetta, Mondello, Sicily
Bruschetta classica
Cefalu ceramics, Sicily
Cefalu is famous for ceramics
Beach huts, Mondello, Sicily
The beach huts at Mondello
Mondello, Sicily
Mondello port
What did I eat and drink in Sicily?
  • Campari: with orange juice, with soda, as an Americano cocktail with Martini Rosso
  • Ice cream sandwiches: French women don't get fat but Italian women don't care. For lunch everyone ate buns filled with ice cream. 
  • Granita: like a posh slushy. My favourite type was coffee flavoured, eaten in the morning with brioche or lemon flavoured, after dinner. These cost 2.5 euros.
  • Aubergines: their aubergines are round, sitting squat, the size of footballs. They are eaten in pasta alle Norma (pasta with tomato and aubergine sauce) or Caponata, an agrodolce (sweet sour) aubergine and caper stew, sometimes with swordfish.
  • Pistachios: green slivers, in pesto, on pasta, as a snack, as a spread, also in sheep cheese. 
  • Oranges: I wasn't there in season for the famous blood oranges but they are delicious sliced with either dark anchovy fillets or boquerone style anchovies in a salad, again that whole salt/sweet thang that I love.
  • Bruschetta: pronounced brusketta, with diced ripe tomato or slices of aubergine sprinkled with cheese
  • Cannoli: a kind of fried pastry filled with ricotta or ice cream. 
  • Artichokes: god I love artichokes. I can consume them by the jar. Big Sicilian ingredient.
  • Coffee: no one does coffee like the Italians, nobody. The cappuccino, the expresso, but I also made a discovery, 'latte' just means milk, you have to order caffe latte to get coffee in it. Plus I had coffee flavoured yoghurt, like all your breakfast in a small plastic tub. 
I went to Sicily because of a wedding that I wasn't invited to. My mum and dad were going and I asked if I could come. "You'd better not", they said darkly. "You'll cause ructions. You know what this family is like, a vendetta can start from the smallest thing". My dad's side of my family is Italian/Scottish/Irish. Everybody is an uncle, an auntie or a cousin, even if they are not. I heard family history recounted, old stories repeated, and the odd new one. How my dad, as a fatherless British orphan, was sent to Switzerland for a month as a child, a gift from the Swiss to celebrate the Queen's wedding. How Nanny Savino, who was born a Criscuolo from Sicily, moved to Naples and then England. How she adopted a son who was not 'blood' (this said sotto voce). Something about two brothers who set off from Naples and wrecked their father's boat and were too scared to go home to face the music so became part of our family instead. How Gennaro 'Gancio' (nicknamed the hook because he would pull the girls) Contaldo was courting a girl in Minori and my aunt had to chaperone them & how he stayed with nanny when he first came to England.
(Even my very English mum is not 'blood'. Nor is Auntie Sandra's partner who is clearly 'English' too. The English wives and husbands huddle together protectively at family occasions, rolling their eyes.) My family are supposed to be English but we are not. We are loud, expressive and emotional and most of us are fat and short like vibrant little cuboids made of flesh. But we dance well. This wedding was that of a second cousin, the son of Uncle Dixie who was a boxer, so I was not offended not to be invited. I arrived at midnight Saturday night as the wedding finished. Then I couldn't be accused of being a wedding crasher. 
Sicily is full of weddings; people get married mid-week. Every time we passed a church, a wedding party would exit, once simultaneously with a cloud of white doves. The men are sharp in dark smart suits, with the whitest shirts gleaming at the collar, a glint of diamond on their cuffs or even in their ears, hair slicked back. The women are a treat for the eyes; extravagantly beaded hair, tall shoes, flaming nylon dresses, floral sleeve tattoos. Like TOWIE but with a real tan rather than spray-on. The children are decked out in frou-frou prom-style frocks.
I was staying near Mondello, on the outskirts of Palermo. Mondello doesn't have many restaurants or shops, but has a clean sandy white beach with yellow umbrellas and pastel beach huts, shouldered by looming cliffs. Palermo is worth a visit, particularly the old town, with a food market and Romanesque architecture. I wish I'd known about this particular food tour around Palermo. We drove to Cefalu, along the coast, which was pretty with some good restaurants, rather more lively than Mondello. But a warning: if you miss your turning on Sicilian motorways, it will be miles before you can turn around. I wanted to visit Corleone in the interior, where the Godfather was filmed, despite the warnings that it was mafia country, but my mum doesn't like windy roads. Next time.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Salmon fishing in Alaska

salmon fishing in sitka, alaska

Talon fishing lodge, sitka, alaska
salmon spawning, sitka, alaska
Salmon spawning in a stream. The salmon return to the rivers, the females lay their eggs by making an indent in the river bed with their tails, then the males swim over it and deposit their 'silt'/sperm. This is Eddie Izzard's skit on how God decided salmon should mate.

I've been fishing a couple of times in my life but I've never actually caught a fish. So I was intrigued to go on a culinary fishing retreat at Talon Lodge in Sitka, Alaska, invited by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). People like to fish, and nowhere more so than in Sitka, where spawning salmon in the rivers are so numerous, you can practically scoop them up with your hands.
After a good night's sleep in a spartan pine bedroom with thrilling panoramics of the sea, I struggled into my fishing outfit provided by the lodge; fisherman's dungarees, Wellington boots and a weatherproof jacket.
Breakfast was at 6 am. Coffee, 'oatmeal', yoghurt and fruit 'parfait' and a hot option, such as pancakes or omelette. The first morning I chose oatmeal. I discovered that Americans don't even know the word porridge. Their version is fairly dry and lumpy, not the soft soaked oats cooked slowly that we have in the UK. @Porridgelady needs to go over and do some workshops. 
Be at the dock by 7am. By 7.30 am, we were on the boat; a packed lunch provided by the lodge, and a two person crew, the captain and his assistant. The captain looked like Matt Damon, the assistant was from Mexico. Both had come up to Alaska to work the summer season; like many emigrées from the lower 48 and beyond, they work their butts off for three months then return to wherever they come from, often to work second jobs. In the case of the captain, he'd return to Brazil and his Brazilian girlfriend. 
We were asked several times whether we suffered from sea sickness, those who did, took a pill the night before and one on the day. I said no, as I'd never suffered from it before. 
Sea lions on a rock, sitka, alaska
Sea lions lazing on a rock
As we sped out towards the ocean, passing a blowing whale, bobbing puffins on the water and Caramac brown sea lions on rocks, it was explained that the type of fish you get depends on the depth of your line and the time of year. There are five types of Pacific salmon, which you can remember via a cerebellum memory game you do on the five fingers of your hand:
The five types of Pacific salmon, sitka, alaska
Left to right: King, Silver, Sockeye, Chum, Pink
  • The little finger, the 'pinkie' for Pink salmon, not just a colour but the name.
  • The ring finger for 'silver' (or Coho) salmon.
  • The middle finger, the biggest for 'king' salmon.
  • The index finger, which can poke your eye out, for 'sockeye' salmon.
  • Lastly, the thumb represent 'chum' salmon, now called Keta.

To catch a fish, you drop your line to a certain depth, as fish swim on 'shelves' within the ocean. For instance:
  • Pink: the surface to 50 feet down.
  • Silvers: 50 feet to 100 feet.
  • Kings: 100 feet plus.
Rods on the boat, going fishing, sitka, alaska,
What we are doing is 'sports' fishing as opposed to commercial fishing. We use rods, rather than nets; with rod holders attached to the side of the boat. The captain at the wheel has a monitor, a screen that shows where the fish are, which also makes things easier. 
At each stage we were asked, "Are you comfortable?", "Do you want to go further out to sea?".
"Yeah, of course", I said. I had a passing queasiness but nothing serious.
Once out in the ocean, Matt Damon set me up with some bait, a small sprat, and showed me how to cast and reel in the line. I cast the line, essentially trying to throw a thin bit of string as far away as possible in the water. I managed about a metre away from the boat. Despite my clumsiness, something seemed to occur immediately, the end of the rod bowed. I reeled in, felt the tension, reeled a bit more and kept going, my arm aching with the weight of the fish. Eventually I lifted my rod, directing the end towards the side of the boat. The Mexican 'Primo' grabbed a hook attached to a short wooden stick, hooked the half metre sockeye salmon and slung it on the deck. Fishing for 30 seconds and I'd caught something!
salmon fishing, sitka, alaska

dead salmon on the deck of the boat, sitka, alaska

sockeye salmon, sitka, alaska

sockeye salmon being gutted on the boat, sitka, alaska

salmon heart beating
A salmon's heart

But I wasn't celebrating. Although the water looked fairly flat, I had started to feel seasick. I made my way to the back of the boat, where my salmon was being gutted on a small table. The guts were thrown into the sea, any roe was kept in a ziplock bag. The heart of the fish was left still pumping on the table. That heart pumped for a good ten minutes. I suppose this was my A. A. Gill moment, where I kill something just to know what it feels like. 
"Have some potato chips, the salt will help you", said Primo. "And how about some ginger ale?"
I sat there, munching and sipping, trying to control my stomach. After some recuperation, I got up and made another attempt. I continued to cast and reel but nothing else bit that morning.
The boat drove to another location. We were all sitting inside chatting to the crew when someone said "Where's Neil?", one of the other journalists. We swivelled, looking out the windows around the perimeter of the boat. Nowhere! He was gone. Kate, the PR for the trip, who was by now swigging a beer, looked stricken. Then someone had a thought - maybe he's in the toilet? Neil's large body shortly emerged from the tiny 'head'. The relief made us hysterical with laughter. 
Catching a rockfish, sitka, alaska
That afternoon I caught a quilled rockfish, "eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids" with the shock of a quick ascent, bladder distending from its mouth, a fishy version of the bends. There is some skill involved in reeling it in, feeling the pull of the fish, letting it run a little, tiring it out, then winding it up until the weight hits the end of the rod. You see your catch flapping frantically, gasping as you lift your rod to the side.
With really big fish, a 200-pound halibut for instance, someone has to shoot it in the head before bringing it on board - those things can break your leg. 
rockfish, sitka, alaska

fishing rockfish, sitka, alaska

different kinds of rockfish, sitka, alaska
Different kinds of rockfish

To catch a fish, you must recognise its behaviour.
  • The King salmon are the first in the season (May, June), they like big runs.
  • Silver salmon are last in the season, they run, go back and forth and jump.
  • Pinks like to spin.
  • Sockeyes are jumpers.
  • Chum are hard fliers, they take some drag.
How to recognise the types of salmon:
  • King (Chinook) is the largest, with a purple hue, it often has spots on tail. Its mouth is dark. 
  • Silver has a lighter mouth, no spots on tail, a smaller eye.
  • Chum has a pronounced jaw. You can pick it up by the tail easily. It has a sharper dorsal fin, which is more set back. Big pupils.
  • Pink salmon has small scales and broad spots on the tail.
  • Their colours change depending on what they eat.
talon lodge by night, sitka, alaska
That evening, the fires in the lodge were lit and we gathered around an outdoor kitchen where Japanese and American chefs displayed their skills. The Japanese have 500 words for cutting. We watched as they nicked, slit, lacerated, snipped, trimmed, dissected, fissured, carved and gashed whole fish into neat little sections for rockfish sashimi (in truth a little chewy for my taste) or salmon carpaccio and rubbed, softened and steamed fish skin for soup. Veteran American chef John Ash played master of ceremonies, describing the process, while cooking simple superb dishes such as 'hobo pack' salmon (recipe to come later) and fish soup. The Japanese chefs tend to cut around their fish, working around the shape, using the bevel of the 'Deba' knife. The American chefs use larger knives and bigger strokes. 
deba knife,used by japanese chef
'Deba' knife with rockfish fillet.
The difference between Atlantic and Pacific fishing:

The biggest criticism of Atlantic salmon fishing is that most of it is farmed. Farmed fish have usually consumed their own weight in antibiotics. Even with descriptions such as 'craft-raised' or 'farmed in the wild', this salmon is still fed on pellets. Pacific cod is not a sustainability nightmare, unlike Atlantic cod. Alaskan fish equals a sustainable choice. I asked the ASMI representative what he thought of the British/EU fishing situation. He was straining to be diplomatic but flushed as he said that our low fish stocks were the result of an 'abysmal' fishing policy in which too little was done, too late. Up until the 1970s, Alaska had Russians, Japanese and others fishing only 3 miles offshore. After that, they got strict and ten thousand nets had to be removed from around the shores of Alaska. 
Fish conservation is in the Alaskan constitution of 1959 (Article 8 section 4). As a state, they are unique in having control and monitoring fish stocks and have pioneered fish management, influencing other states. Fishing is a tradition, a way of life, both for Native Alaskans and Modern Alaskans. Everybody in Alaska is touched by fish and the fishing industry.
If biomass means all the fish in the sea, there is an acceptable biological catch (ABC) and total allowable catch (TAC). Alaska allows fisherman to fish at TAC level.
In Britain we have control of 200 miles around our coast but this is open to every member of the EU. This was the price of joining the European Community. 

A few Alaskan fish facts:

  • ASMI is a public and private organisation.
  • Alaska is the 6th largest seafood producer in the world (next in the USA is Louisiana, primarily catfish and shrimp).
  • They have a plane that looks like a fish on Alaska airways. the 'salmon thirty salmon'. 
  • 53% of the Alaskan catch is pollock, which is low value and doesn't cost much. The mysterious white fish you might have seen in filet o' fish, fish fingers, surimi is likely to be Pollock. Pollock grows fast.
  • Sockeye salmon and King salmon is the most expensive protein in the world.
  • They also supply canned salmon, which is popular in the UK.
  • Half the seafood is caught in the winter.
  • Salmon and halibut, however, are caught in the summer.
fishing boat, purse seining, sitka, alaska

In Alaska, there are three types of fishing: seining, gill nets and trolling. The most artisanal way is 'trolling', not to be confused with 'trawling'. We met a fisherman who uses this technique; it's a bit like bulk rod fishing, several lines are dragged behind the boat with hooks placed every so often along the line. With this bespoke technique they catch fewer fish, only 60 to 80 salmon a day. The crew, the captain and two workers, when they catch the fish, hit it on the head then cut the gill plate. This is to slow down the lactic acid and prevent the salmon from becoming damaged while it struggles. (In general ASMI are encouraging fishermen to handle their catch carefully, not to bash around the bodies. I saw this also during my visit to Billingsgate where the veteran fishmonger Bill Condon takes care not to move the body of the salmon around too much when slicing). A medical catheter is dropped into the kidney to drain the blood; this can be done in 45 seconds. The crew splay the tail of the fish and place it into the super freezer on the boat, where the salmon is frozen at a temperature of -1ºC/30ºF. The fish doesn't even go through rigor mortis, in fact it can go through rigor a year later when it thaws. It takes four to twelve hours to freeze the salmon and every so often they dip the fish and glaze it with water to prevent dehydration. Open water fish don't get any fresher than this.

How long can you keep fresh fish?

After 5 or 6 days a salmon breaks down. At 12 days, it's mush. I remember going into Tesco at Christmas where they had whole salmon going at a cheap rate. The salmon weren't even in the fridge, they were on the floor stacked in boxes, Tesco had them for over a week already. 
However some fish, particularly white fish, are better when matured, has some flavour. I ate some at an award-winning fish and chip shop in the Shetlands where, because of the freshness, the fish lacked flavour. 
caught salmon with roe, sitka, alaska
Our catch with packets of salmon roe removed from the females

When I left Sitka on Alaskan airways from the tiny airport (where The Nugget restaurant serves excellent home-baked fruit pies), I noticed that most of the check-in luggage on trolleys and also on the carousel consisted of large white cardboard boxes labelled 'chilled'. One of the burly men who formed the majority of the aircraft passenger list said it was fish from their fishing trip. The atmosphere on the flight brimmed with the air of happy testosterone, bottles of whisky ordered from the attendants and passed around. But I didn't get to fly the 'salmon thirty salmon'.