The meeting held at Slow Fish on Saturday, “What’s On the Menu Today: Anchovies or Striped Catfish?”, part of the events in the Dream Canteen space, examined the widespread use of striped catfish (Pangasius hypophthalmus) from Vietnam in school catering, taking it as a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion of the issues facing public food service.
The moderator, Gianfranco Corgiat Loia, Director of the Piedmont Regional Authority’s Agriculture Office, presented the speakers, including the head of a catering company, a biologist, a researcher, a fisherman and a representative from the Vietnamese Embassy.
Antonio Ciappi, operations director of a public/private catering company in Bagno a Ripoli in Tuscany, SIAF, offered an overview of the main issues that catering companies must deal with when designing menus and choosing suppliers, which he broke down into four categories: organizational-logistical, socio-cultural, economic-managerial and qualitative.
“Young people today are more used to eating sushi than fresh pesce azzurro [oily fish] from the Mediterranean,” he lamented, describing the fracture that has taken place between food and consumers in the last half century, with food losing its identity and even its texture. “Chicken has become sticks of composite, we peel and slice fruit for our children, debone fish, mash up meat and vegetables: soon all we’ll have to do with food is chew.” In schools, he said, fish has to have no bones, no head, no tail; it must be completely cleaned. The only fresh fish that school cafeterias could afford are pesce azzurro like anchovies, but thousands would need to be filletted for each meal, which would be completely impracticable. As a result, frozen fillets are the only sustainable choice, and with an average of €0.75 to spend on the main course, inevitably menus rely on cheap imported fish like blue shark and striped catfish, which are low in nutritional value and flavor. Instead, he said, schools should be taking advantage of little-known local species like Atlantic bonito and horse mackerel.
A defence of striped catfish came from Tran Thanh Hai, Commercial Counsellor for the Vietnamese Embassy in Italy. He said the fish was farmed following strict standards of quality control along the Mekong River, which contrary to popular belief was not highly polluted, and that the Italian national food and nutrition research institute and the Milan health board had declared that the fish met accepted nutritional standards. Perhaps the poor reputation of the fish, called pangasio in Italy, might be due to traders storing the fish for too long.
Angelo Cau, head of the Animal Biology Department at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, instead said that the solution lay closer to home. “If we used what is thrown away then we wouldn’t need to import from abroad,” he said, before providing statistics on the massive quantities of fish discarded as by-catch: from 1,000 kg of fish caught at 200 meters depth, just 10 kg might actually be kept. He went on to list the problems with aquaculture – imported species, destruction of the environment, overuse of antibiotics – describing it as “ecological terrorism.”
Representing producers, Massimo Bernacchini, the coordinator of catch processing for the Orbetello Lagoon fishing cooperative, said that fishermen would be happy to sell this by-catch, but that there was no demand from consumers. However he did point to the Palamita Slow Food Presidium as a successful project that had promoted an underused species, Atlantic bonito (palamita). Andrea Maestrelli, a researcher with the Agricultural Research Council (CRA) presented a thorough account of how everything from fishing techniques to freezing methods affects the quality of the final fish.
Ciappi brought the meeting to a conclusion with a heartening story of how a short supply chain could help cut costs: His company was buying basil from the wholesale market in Florence, spending €250 every time. Then they discovered that the basil was being grown just 800 meters from their facility. Now they purchase it direct, for just €125. “We save money, and the basil is even better quality,” he said. “It’s cut just a few hours before we use it.” The challenge will be applying this kind of successful model to the complexities presented by fish.