Food Memories: Frutti Di Mare - A Love Story
Words by Leigh LinleyIllustration by Rose Jocham
I proposed to my wife in Kefalonia.
The Greek Islands (and its food) had played a major part in our lives, our holidays together getting better every year, so it seemed like the right thing to do. She said yes (thank god!) and afterwards we had a nerve-calming drink and excitedly looked for a place to celebrate; a taverna, or a harbour-side restaurant. Nothing fancy, as the Greeks do so well. Whitewashed walls, powder-blue tables and the evil eye above the door, that sort of thing.
Our chosen dish? A huge shared plate of Calamari, Octopus, Whitebait and Prawns, bolstered by hunks of fish and a side plate of salty chips (don’t scoff – the humble salted chip is elevated to near-religious heights at times like this) and lemon quarters. All washed down with a bottle of bone-dry Greek white wine. The sky turned from blue to pink to indigo, and all was well with the world. It was better than that, actually. It was perfect.
Years later, this simple dish remains our all-time favourite. Almost insulting in its simplicity, it’s a meal where freshness of the seafood is key; and that’s about it. We hunt it out wherever we go in the Mediterranean, and make it almost every weekend during our (admittedly short) summers at home. It’s our go-to, our vice, our addiction. It’s the story of us.
I’ve always loved fish; Louise…not so much. In 1998 we went on our first holiday together – a nerve-shredding rite of passage that saw us take a trip to Turkey. We were green about travelling alone but I’d visited as a teenager so knew what to expect to some extent. I particularly recalled the ‘Fish Plate’ that my relatives tucked into with glee. Seemingly too much food for one man to eat, it represented both a challenge and a luxury. I ordered it as soon as I could; taking some pleasure from watching Louise’s eyes bulge when it landed on the table. I couldn’t even name what was on it… juicy fish and shellfish, battered and fried, doused in Lemon and Salt. Cold bottles of Efes Pilsner littered the table. It was heady, lip-stinging stuff.
Curiosity got the better of Louise and she tasted her way round my plate as the holiday skipped by, and by the end of it she was ordering her own with nervous laughter. Greece, the next year, elevated the meal to new heights. The fish seemed lighter, the prawns juicier, and the lemon near-explosive in the mouth. We were now sharing; citrus, salt and white wine – we don’t care which, house is fine, as long as it’s dry and cold – the only dressing.
There are differences, you know, despite the Italian term seemingly being the universal name for ‘A plate of really good fried seafood’. Bulgaria – a place that I had zero clue about food-wise – turned out to have the most amazing fish, pulled from the Black Sea and prepared in inventive ways. Their version was heavy on battered Mussels; eaten with a toothpick; crunchy batter hiding flavoursome, robust meat within, sprinkled with elusively bitter Sumac. A mountain of fried ‘Scads’, all semi-oily flesh and still hot from the fryer. The sea beyond. Secretly succulent wine (Traminer from Pomorie and Targovishte, mostly) and the beer. The salt. Lemon. Dill appeared here, adding a fresh, almost Scandinavian note to the seafood.
Samos: a Greek island popular among Germans, meaning that the kind-eyed matron of the tavern bringing me my fish also brings a tall, perspiring glass of cloudy Weissbier – the sweet, citrusy notes of the beer brining a new dimension to the humble plate of fish. One after another the beer flows, conversation quickening and all lubricated with crunchy, salt-sweet Whitebait. Down in one, including the head – it’s the only way.
Skala, Kefalonia: Eaten with the company of a fat, black-and-white cat – normally a nuisance but when eating fried fish, drinking cold wine and looking out into the Mediterranean Sea – a charming companion. This time, slivers of Salmon join the party, the chef’s own touch. He’s from Athens; he works here in the summer then heads back to the city in the winter. The cat lingers under the table, enjoying our scraps. As we leave, we look back at our table; he’s laying underneath, snoozing. A good night’s work.
Later in the holiday: A courtyard restaurant, bare brick and tablecandles, tree-trunks wending their way through the dining area and above, providing the most romantic canopy. A rare deviation; the fish (oily? Bass?) grilling on the barbecue in plain sight of the diners. It’s too much to resist. Eyes popped, a starter picked from bones and flesh smeared onto bread. Potatoes, halved and simmered in chicken stock and fresh Rosemary. Wine, music, grill-smoke clinging to your new shirt.
Leeds: An inexplicably hot UK summer. All doors flung open, the table and chairs set up on the lawn that, for once, is pool-table green. The dog seeks cool refuge on the tiled kitchen floor; the pan on the hob housing rolling, angry oil and I’m pulling out Calamari and loading more in as I go. Bread, sliced and ready on the table; cold Paulaner in the fridge and a bottle of Chiaretto for later. A bowl of oily Mayonnaise loaded with crushed Garlic and fresh, aromatic Dill. Taking the plate outside the air is filled with barbecue smoke but I’m frying this evening – fish to be eaten under the fleetingly warm English sun.
Italy, then, and the refinement of the art; seafood as sophisticate and sleek. The lightest batter, the softest Calamari. Straw-thin fries to accompany, and two glasses of Prosecco, please. Pool-side at the honeymoon hotel, book folded under the lounger, plans being made to come back in a couple of years’ time…but for now, the Frutti Di Mare.
Always the Frutti Di Mare.
My Recipe: Make a dredge of plain flour, white pepper and paprika and roll sliced fresh squid (as thin as you can), whitebait (when in season), bite-sized hunks of white fish (hake, coley and monkfish are all fine) and Prawns in. Heat a pan of oil until very hot, and fry away. Fish first (1-2 minutes), then lighter items last. Don’t overcook them. Drain on kitchen roll whilst waiting for all to come together. Crush fresh garlic and chopped Dill into Mayonnaise, and douse liberally with good salt and fresh, squeezed lemon. Enjoy with cold white wine, good lager or Wheat Beer.