The Appliance of Science

02 May 2007

It wasn’t necessary for a London sushi bar to serve polonium-contaminated fish to a Russian spy and his Neapolitan mate to sound the alarm. It’s a well known fact that fish — the fish of delicatessens and kitchens, chip shops and sushi bars — are obstinately silent and untrustworthy.

In the Water Workshops at this week’s ‘Slow Fish’ event in Genoa, we’ll be trying to making them speak. For as anyone who has ears to listen, eyes to see and a nose to smell will tell you, fish actually can speak. Honestly. And the job of interpreting fish-speak is entrusted to the chefs who have dedicated lots of time, developed lots of experience along the way, not only cooking fish but also choosing the raw materials, from the not always ‘limpid’ wares of local markets and often insidious global markets.

Are strange hybrids between global and local forms to be found on the stalls of fish markets? Is there such a thing as a glocal fish? How can we make sure supplies live up to expectations?

I asked these questions to Mauro Uliassi, one of Italy’s most interesting fish chefs. We were in the kitchen of his restaurant in Senigallia, surrounded huge orange benches (‘Orange is a color that rests the mind,’ he reassures me). Uliassi doesn’t buy fish. Or, at least, he doesn’t buy fish in the conventional sense of the term. Suppliers are part of the work group that keep the restaurant kitchen ‘on the move’.

‘I know and recognize fish from a distance, no longer close up, as I learnt to do in the 1990s. I began visiting the market in Senigallia, then the one in Ancona, later hanging out with old restaurateurs like Pongetti and picking up their buying criteria. I learnt to appreciate the delicate, intense relationship that existed between this demanding buyer and a very competent seller, Gianni Marchionni. That’s how I got to know and tell the seasons according to the size of reproduction glands and the presence or otherwise of roe.

It’s totally plausible, this picture of Uliassi scrutinizing the insides of a fish or a crustacean, or delving among the valves of a mussel to read the omens like the high priests of old. Yes, he seems capable of reading omens in the great modernity of the restaurant trade. He has learnt to tell farmed fish from wild, hence fished. He can catalogue supplies of fish according to whether it’s for consumption within 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours. Other than that he doesn’t know, nor must he nor can he…

Without wanting to, but knowingly, he has created a sort of Food Community which ensures him the ideal raw materials from near and far to build appetizing little sculptures. A cracker sitting on a fresh scampi surmounted by a sea urchin roe ice-cream, for instance. The application of nanotechnologies to minimal crudités … Even in the kitchen, the appeal of technique is irresistible, especially when it’s accompanied by careful observation of anatomy. When the need arises, clients become the authoritative members of the Community.

‘I used to buy nice plump sea-bass. I used to get them from a supplier who owns ten boats and delivers excellent quality products because he rightly believes that continuing to provide our restaurant with food is a good demonstration of professionalism. Some clients with well-developed tactile skills pointed out that the meat of these ‘predators of the sea’ was flaccid and fat, as if they were farmed not wild. The sensation derives from the fact that, in the spaces between one muscle segment and the next (what biologists call myotomes) fatty substances form when and if (if only in the case of fished fish) the bass take a rest from their hunting. In July they feed on prey that are easier to catch, and it is then that the females put on the fat they later ‘invest’ in the production of roe. So we should avoid bass in July.’

And in August too. At least in this stretch of sea. In the meantime, red tuna fish are bringing their flavor from the markets of Sicily and sea-urchins are coming in from Sardinia.

The Mediterranean is an atlas of marine biology there to be browsed through. For people like our chef who choose the best moment to buy on the basis of roe production, the present, abnormal warming of seawater has been used out — everything is under control. But there lies another fish tale …

Ettore Tibaldi is a zoology lecturer at the University of Milan, he has traveled extensively in Africa, where he works to promote scientific popularization strategies in developing countries.

Adapted by Ramon Rosati.

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