Seen from the air, Orbetello appears to float at the center of its lagoon. This small town in the south of Tuscany was severely scarred by bombing in World War II, and to describe the subsequent reconstruction work as anonymous would be euphemistic to say the least. No that the place is entirely devoid of charm, though. Visitors can still admire the remains of the old town walls, the odd patrician palace and, above all, a bustling, seafaring atmosphere. Here fishing is a major business. The local fishermen form a small, close-knit caste, and partly with their tongues in their cheeks, they proudly boast that they are ‘authentically noble’. Why? The story is a fascinating one and well worth telling.
It goes like this. In 1376, Pope Gregory XI gave in to the pleas of Catherine of Siena, later to be made a saint,and agreed to bring the papacy back to Italy from Avignon. During the voyage, his ship met a storm in the channel of Piombino and was forced to take shelter in the anchorage of Santa Liberata. The party then tried to sail on to Orbetello, but ran aground in the lagoon. At which point, the town’s fishermen went out in their boats to rescue the papal court and deliver them to safety in the cathedral courtyard. There and then, as a token of gratitude, the Pope granted the fishermen the title of ‘authentic nobility’. Ever since that day, on August 15 every year, they have made an offering of fish to the cathedral.
The fishermen have now joined forces in a cooperative called ‘La Peschereccia’, which holds the fishing rights for the lagoons of Orbetello. They also own a shop and a fish market, farm sea-bass fry for repopulation purposes, produce bottarga (salted mullet roe), smoked gray mullet and eel fillets and, every evening, serve the day’s catch cooked the local way, ‘all’orbetellese’, at a small restaurant situated in the local cultural and recreational association. The cooperative boasts 75 members and is run with managerial flair by Massimo Bernacchini, the man responsible for developing the processing and service side of the business. Incidentally, it was also Bernacchini who launched the production of bottarga in 1966.
It was most likely the Spanish who introduced the art of preserving fish to Orbetello. As early as the sixteenth century they had mastered the art of smoking eels and preserving fish in ‘escabece’, a warm sauce of vinegar, rosemary, garlic and pepper. To this day in Orbetello they pride themselves on their preserved eels: anguilla scavecciata (see the antiphony with ‘escabece’?) and anguilla sfumata (ie, smoked). Bottarga used to be produced here mainly for home consumption. ‘Now we are turning it into a business,’ says Bertacchini. ‘We have a certified laboratory and we are allowed to process and sell it, though the present laws don’t let us to sun-dry it. Nowadays we have to simulate the process in climate-controlled environments!’. The most famous Italian bottarga comes from Cabras in Sardinia, where the ponds are 20 times the size of Orbetello’s and many more Mugil cephalus are fished. Alas, the Sardinian ponds also happen to be diseased, and only very few workshops are authorized to process the roe. As a result, slowly but surely, Orbetello has managed to win itself a place in the sun. ‘Technically speaking, making bottarga its a pretty simple operation. All you have to do is extract the ovarial sacs from the female gray mullet, taking great care not to damage them. Then you salt them, leave them to rest for a few hours and let them dry. And that’s it. In Sardinia they age them longer. We like to keep them a bit softer. But we really have Mother Nature to thank for the end-product’. The tender, amber-colored bottarga of Orbetello is superb cut into fine slices and anointed with a few drops extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Another good way of serving it is grated on spaghetti with parsley, garlic and just a smidgen of red pepper.
Where to eat
‘Aurelia’ state highway km 140
Tel. 0564 862179
Price: L. 50-70,000, wine excluded
Choose between a selection of ‘menù degustazione’ (fish, meat or vegetarian) or à la carte. The cuisine is local (Maremma country fare or the day’s catch) jazzed up, though not excessively so, by the chef. Quite a decent wine list.
Magliano in Toscana
Where to eat
Antica Trattoria Aurora
Via Chaise Lavagnini, 12-14
Tel. 0564 592030-592774
Prices: L 50-55,000, wine excluded
All credit cards
Lucio Gnani’s trattoria is one of the best in the Maremma. For first course, we recommend pappardelle with duck, gnudi with aromatic herbs or the classic local soup, acquacotta. For the main course, padellata alla maremmana (a mixed meat stew), roast rabbit with onions, grilled meats or goose breast in bramble vinegar. The wine list is interesting and features lots of local labels.
Where to stay
Via Mura di Levante, 34
Tel. 0564 867601
39 rooms, 12 suites
Prices: double room L. 200-250,000, suite L. 300-400,000
Hotel San Biagio
Via Dante, 36
Tel. 0564 860543
17 rooms, 4 suites
Prices: double room L. 210-290,000, suite L. 330-380,000
Where to shop
Tel. 0564 862636
Situated a stone’s throw from the Parco dell’Uccellina (the Maremma National Park), this old farm produces and sells cheese (fresh and mature sheep’s, fresh goat’s, primo fiore, caciotta, mixed goat’s-sheep’s), fruit, vegetables, oil and honey.
Orbetello Pesca Lagunare
Via Leopardi 9
Tel. 0564 860288
The cooperative has held the fishing rights for the lagoon of Orbetello for the last ten years. It sells local bottarga, smoked gray mullet fillets and smoked eel in hot sauce. You can taste the various products at the ‘I pescatori’ cultural and recreational association at the same address.
Piero Sardo, a gourmet and f&w writer, is a Slow Food vice-president and manager of the association’s Presidia Office
English adaptation by John irving