Paccheri allo Sgombro; or, ‘Mate, Aren’t You a Vegetarian?’

On fish, history, and a holiday to Ventotene.

Last summer, Giulia’s mum, Rosa, invited us both on holiday to Ventotene, an island off the Italian coast between Rome and Naples. Unsurprisingly, we went. More surprisingly, Giuliano — Giulia’s dad, a man who hates the heat, the sunshine, and the sea — came with us.

Ventotene is known primarily for having been a penal colony under Mussolini. The fascist would send political opponents there or to the prison on Santo Stefano — a tiny island some two kilometres off Ventotene’s coast.

In 2016, with post-Brexit jitters, Merkel, Renzi, and Hollande met on Ventotene, to pay homage to Altiero Spinelli — a prisoner of Mussolini who wrote there, during the second world war, the first text proposing a federal Europe, the EU.

These days, however, it’s mainly just a middle-class holiday resort.

Anyway, Giulia, having been a vegetarian for a decade or so, had begun again to eat fish. I, too, having been a vegetarian for a decade, did not really know what fish could really be.

I was a little limited to fish and chips, to canned sardines, to distant memories of my mum once in Scotland trying desperately, unsuccessfully, to get the flesh out of a prawn. This holiday was to be my great seafood discovery.

But we’d keep the fish to the evenings. For lunch: fresh mozzarella shipped over daily from the mainland, pane e pomodori, and a salad. The same every day. But, you know, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

The afternoons I’d spend reading — and attempting chats with Giuliano, about the history of Italy, about the continuing influence of fascism, about anything I read, in broken Italian: ‘Mate, err… Brigate Rosse — very bad?’; ‘Giuliano, err… Tangentopoli — very bad?’; ‘sorry, err… Berlusconi … err — very bad?’.

His responses would begin with shrugs and sighs, pass through hesitant attempts at English, and end with passionate complaints about the state of Italian politics — in Italian. I’d smile, frown, and hope I’d understood.

These conversations would fade away with the arrival of food. In the evenings, we’d go to a restaurant. I ate cuttlefish, cuttlefish ink, squid, octopus, and scorfano — for sure — with all sorts of other things marinated, fried, or raw.

From a penal colony, it’s now an island seemingly with more restaurants than inhabitants.

The Dish.

The thing that stood out was the scorfano — a bloody intimidating thing if you see the photos — which we in English apparently call redfish. It’s gorgeous, served in a tomato sugo with paccheri — a large tubular pasta that wilts into dreamy, floppy packages.

Served with some herbs — dill and parsley — its flavour is richly fishy and distinctive. And it is easy as hell to make.

We can’t manage to find this redfish in the UK, despite having tried extensively. Instead, we use mackerel, Scotland’s favourite fish. It’s cheap and it’s sustainable — but it’s a bit bloody boney if you are preparing it yourself.

The Ingredients.

  • soffritto (onion, carrot, celery, leek — altogether and as you prefer)
  • A splash of white wine
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 fillets of mackerel (sgombro, in Italian)
  • Parsley
  • Dill
  • 200–250 grams of paccheri

The Method.

  1. Oil in a pan and get the soffritto frying.
  2. Add the chopped tomatoes and let it simmer for a while. Let those tomato chunks melt a little.
  3. Season with salt, pepper, and, later on, your dill and parsley.
  4. Add some oil to a separate pan and heat.
  5. When hot, throw in your mackerel fillets — deboned, deskinned.
  6. Keep the pan hot and splash in a bit of wine. Don’t drown it; the wine should evaporate immediately.
  7. When the fish is tender, add it to the sugo, which will be on a low heat.
  8. Boil water for the pasta, chuck in the paccheri, and Bob’s your uncle.
  9. You can add an edgy sprig of parsley to the top for the aesthetic.

Food stories, recipes, and politics from a Brit in an Italian kitchen.

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