June 2021. Fish out of Water.

June 2021.

Fish out of Water.

The accepted doyen of Italian cooking is Pellegrino Artusi, a Novecento period character who approached the culinary arts from a scientific point of view, and there are many modern Italian Television cooks who claim they follow his recipes with a great deal of devotion. They may, for all I know, but I regret to say I have had more success with the quasi-legendary Roman gourmet – one Marcus Apicius. I’m probably biased, as Artusi seems to have been something of an interloper where foreign cuisine was concerned -- Pigeon cooked in the English style, Gateau A ’La Noisette, Lamb Hungarian style, Sauce Maître D’hôtel, even Macaroni in the French Style, all from his “Italian Cook Book”. I’ll pass over the abysmal ‘Thrushes with Olives’ and ‘Stewed Blackbirds’, though to be fair, such items were quite common in Italian restaurants only twenty-five years ago, and not unknown today in out of the way places.  Apicius, on the other hand, is reputed to have been one of three gastrophiles living during the time of Imperial Rome, and Tiberius in particular. Not a good moment to burn the buns, but his love of food was so great that it has been suggested he poisoned himself for fear of dying of hunger. In any case he seems to have been a voluptuary of considerable wealth as many of his recipes indicate. But you should not be put off, even if the idea of “Small Roast Testicles” would make any grown man wince, even when roasted with plenty of black pepper, coriander, and fennel.

However, he also has a considerable number of fishy recipes that are interesting in that they are very often simply prepared. His sardines, for instance, were presented with an interesting sauce. As I’m going to follow his facility, you should take note of a little recipe of his entitled Sardas Sic Facies, a sauce of black pepper, lovage seed, oregano, onion and hard-boiled egg yolks. For a change, he left out the mint. Simply blend with olive oil and wine vinegar and pour over fried sardines. Probably work well for any fried fish. That’s the sort of ease I’m happy to replicate. Indeed, if you come across a copy of John Edwards excellent translation of Apicius, and are keen to try Roman cuisine, buy it, being stuffed with sensible adaptions of his recipes, though some of the ingredients are not likely to excite the gastric apparatus. However, for sauces, it’s the business.

So, as you might have guessed, sardines it is to be then. To be precise, in our case, “Orecchiette, Sardines and Broccoli”. You’ll note I have not referred to the succeeding recipe as Sardine della nonna as those of a more extravagant nature might aspire to. I’m sure the dear lady would turn her nose up at the suggestion, and this is definitely not a recipe from the justifiably famous Italian orto. In fact, the only thing Italian about it is the pasta. Don’t let that put you off, because this is a handy dish for the impecunious who still want to impress, besides being a doddle to make.

Acquiring decent sardines is not so difficult for land lubbers these days, but given my father’s philosophy of only eating fish acquired from a boat in the harbour, twenty miles inland means it remains far from a done thing. We’ll get round that by cutting a corner. Then, there is the aim of producing a cost-effective speedy meal without the trouble of filleting the small fish – well, in Cornwall they arrive in maxi size – but for my purposes, with only two to feed, there is an alternative. Therefore, without telling the guests, one can rely on a good quality tinned Sardines of 120 gr. size, which will prove sufficient for our needs. Shock horror! Tinned sardines? At this point, I should add, that those in olive oil will be just fine.

For some unknown, and unexplained reason, I have always chosen to add two or three anchovies as well to this dish – those sold in mini-bottles. At one point I used to buy them salted in tins, removing the spine before using. This is a real art, and somewhat tricky, so I can’t say I recommend the effort when those in olive oil are ready to go. Ladies with razor sharp finger nails would have no trouble at all. I might also add that if you have a largesse of anchovies, I suppose you could dispense with the sardines. In Italy anchovies go by two names, well three, if you include a mini version of Alice called Alicétta. However, they are more commonly referred to as Acciughe in Tuscany, and as the provisioners shelves are heaving with the produce nearly everywhere, must be of some culinary import to the local cuisine. So, arm yourself with the following, doubling up a little depending on numbers:


Sardines, 120 gm tin.

Anchovies - two or three.

Chilli pepper - one or two. (See note 1)

Garlic - two or three finely chopped.

Olive Oil - four tablespoons.

Orecchiette. (See note 2) 4oz.

Broccoli - fresh, medium size.

Black Pepper – three or four turns of the mill. (See note 1)

Salt – just a little for the pasta.


Start with the greens. The broccoli should have as small ‘heads’ as possible, though any large ones can be halved etc. Cut the florets neatly off, leaving a little stalk on them. Take the main stalk and pare off the green outer skin until nearly white. Chop off the end and discard, leaving the rest of the stalk to be cut into wheels. Not too thick. Include any leaves that look fresh, chopping to a convenient size. Place all in salted water and set aside. Elizabeth David considered the stalk more important than the florets. She had a point.

In a heavy based pan place the olive oil and chopped garlic. Bring to heat and blend for a minute. Lower the heat. Add the anchovies, stirring through, followed by the sardines in their oil, and black pepper. Break down and cook until it resembles a sauce. At this point stir in the crushed chilli pepper.

    Note 1: Chilli peppers are notoriously wayward but can be made to behave as you wish – arm yourself with a small finger slice of soft bread and commence by adding one chilli pepper, to the sauce, or less, if you have doubts. Mix it well, then dip the end of the bread in to the sauce and taste. If it’s not hot enough, continue the process until you’re satisfied.

The best peppercorns suitable for the peppermill are “Tellicherry”, procured from SPICE ORIGIN U.K. Not inexpensive, but you’ll certainly taste the difference.

Turn off the sauce and prepare the pasta.

     Note 2:  Orecchiette are ear shaped pasta. They come in a number of related shapes but you should aim for those that are cupped enough to hold a modicum of sauce. I have tried other types of pasta, but Orecchiette I find the most satisfactory. They can also be used very simply – tossed in olive oil with wild rucola (rocket), small tomatoes and chili pepper.  

Back to the preparation. There are two stages to this part. Firstly, Orecchiette take approximately ten minutes from when the water RETURNS to the boil. Five minutes after this point, drain the broccoli and rinse, then add to the pasta. Again, watch until the water returns to boiling. Then time for about another five minutes, but don’t let the broccoli get soft.

While this is going on, bring the sauce back to heat, then drain the pasta mix and add to the now reheated sauce. Stir in with a large non-stick spoon, and serve at once with grated parmesan, and a robust red wine.

The whole recipe should only take twenty-five minutes, and cost , perhaps, two pounds, or even less, if you can drive a bargain like my other half.


Buon appetito.