Fish from the Rialto

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How Christopher Hirst brought his supper from Venice to London…

Probably the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed fish market in the world is at the Rialto in Venice. Dating from before 1100, its dozen large stalls run along the left bank of the Grand Canal. The heart of the market consists of a two-storey open-sided hall. Statues of naked fishermen stand guard at the corners while stone dolphins perch on the pillars. Standing behind their laden, dripping counters, market traders patiently endure the lenses of tourists, whose interest is as ardent as it is unlucrative. Led by the fish-mad Japanese, endless waves of visitors snap away.

What fish lover would not want to record the abundant frutti di mare of the Adriatic? The market is particularly rich in cephalopods and crustaceans: coils of octopuses, shoals of calamari, the baby octopus known locally as folpetti and, most striking of all, swirling heaps of cuttlefish leaking the black ink that proved an ineffective defence against fishing nets. There are also strange little pink fish with mouths agape and rosy heaps of freshly caught mantis shrimps. Still alive, they feebly gesture with the claws once powerful enough (at least in large specimens) to crack the glass of a fish tank.

The prodigious haul is both irresistibly fascinating and intensely annoying if you happen to lack a kitchen. I was mulling over this unfortunate shortcoming at supper that night at a highly esteemed, but dauntingly priced little restaurant called Alle Testiere. Fuelled by my starter of raw scampi in olive oil (excellent), a solution came to mind. Of course, I did have a kitchen. Unfortunately, it happened to be in south London. But we were heading back there on the following day. ‘Aha!’ I said, startling my wife during her assault on gnocchi with cinnamon-perfumed baby squid, ‘I’ve had an idea…’

Our four-day vaporetto (water bus) pass expired at 11am, so we had to get our skates on. Shortly before 10am, we chugged along the Grand Canal to the Rialto Market vaporetto stop and scuttled to the fish market. Lack of a common language proved no barrier to negotiations. No, we couldn’t buy half the filleted fresh anchovies spread on sheets of plastic-covered paper. It had to be the whole lot at five euros. We also got a quarter-kilo of some strange but tempting white lumps called latte di sepia, along with a bag of prawns (I wanted to make my marvellous starter of the previous night), a clutch of baby razor clams, beautifully patterned veraci or carpetshell clams, a bag of pretty much expired mantis shrimps and a few handfuls of baby octopus.

My most daring purchase was a kilo of inky cuttlefish. ‘Due sacchi, grazie,’ I told the trader, though my request for double bagging was the utmost limit of my Italian. ‘They’re going to Londra.’ Lugging our haul, we headed back by vaporeto in the final minutes of our pass. It was just as well we obeyed the time limit, since a trio of young inspectors, charming but assiduous, joined the boat at the next stop.

Back in the hotel, I was faced by an unforeseen problem. My wife reminded me that Easyjet had restricted us to two small carry-on cases. Unfortunately, these were already jammed with sufficient clothing, toilet items and other fripperies for a four-night break. In fact, I only had one small case at my disposal since my wife rather unreasonably refused to squeeze raw fish into her luggage. If you’re ever faced with a similar problem, my technique involved removing a top dressing of shirts, tee shirts and underwear, inserting the double-wrapped purchases from the Rialto market, then replacing the removed clothing to form a protective layer. Due to my fishy greed, I had to press the lid to achieve closure.

Five hours later and 706 miles away, I opened my case with some apprehension. Mercifully, there was scarcely any leakage. At any rate, no ink. That night I started cooking. Grilled with a parsley, garlic and olive oil, the baby razor clams were sweeter, less chewy and far more amenable than the adult razors we encounter in Britain. The carpetshell clams went into spaghetti alle vongole (a dish so universally consumed in Italy that the Italian term for Mr Average is Signor Vongole). The cooked baby octopus (15 minutes in boiling water with half a lemon and two bay leaves) made an outstanding antipasto when served with a dressing of parsley, lemon juice and olive oil.

The latte di seppie turned out to cuttlefish gonads, delicately tasty when sautéed in butter and parsley. The same approach with the butterflied fresh anchovies produced wonderfully sweet morsels. Five euros-worth was by no means excessive. Brushed with olive oil and grilled, the mantis shrimps were a sort of workingman’s langoustine, not quite as sweet or resilient but still most acceptable. My only disappointment was the prawns, which were too fragile for raw consumption. They were OK after a brisk simmer.

On the following night I tackled the highlight of my transcontinental takeaway. I’ve been lusting to the inky cuttlefish stew known as seppie in nero, ever since consuming a large, pitch-black bowlful a few years ago in a restaurant called Osteria ae Botti on the Venetian island of Giudecca. They’re quite easy to clean. After removing the bone, beak and various bits of gut, you look out for a small, tear-shaped, opalescent sac. This is the ink. Cuttlefish in its own ink is among the best of all cephalopod dishes. It is a mystery why we don’t eat more cuttlefish in this country. Venetians regard polenta (the hard kind) as an obligatory accompaniment but I was very happy eating it with a bit of bread. More than happy. Ecstatic.


Cuttlefish in its own ink (seppie in nero)

Cuttlefish may be a rarity here though a good fishmonger should be able to order some in for you. You can use the ink from the cuttlefish or buy a ready-prepared sachet.

Sauté two cloves of chopped garlic and two tablespoons chopped parsley in three tablespoons olive oil for two minutes, add 200ml white wine and cuttlefish sliced into narrow strips. Add sufficient water to cover, bring to boil and simmer for half an hour. It should be uncovered so sauce will reduce. Snip ink sac or sachets and add them for the last two minutes. Serve with hard polenta or chunks of country bread.