Norway lobsters is what the books call them. The English call them Dublin Bay Prawns. The French call them Langoustines. The Spanish who go nuts for the things, buying up up to half of England’s catch, call them cigalas. Visit friends in Spain and you’ll be offered these, often the first meal to celebrate your arrival. Maybe your last meal too, if you’re lucky. As for everyone here in Italy, we all seem to agree on two things. A) that these little fellows are called gli scampi (lo scampo, in the singular) and 2, that you couldn’t ask for a better summer lunch.
Most of those that live far from water tend to think of it as being binary, you either have fish (on the coasts) or you don’t (in the hinderland) but what’s not obvious for the land people is that the sense of terrior doesn’t stop at the shore.
Seven years ago I rode my bicycle the length of Italy, from Trieste to Lecce, in just over 34 days. To say that I devoured seafood during that trip is an understatement (without failing, the waiter would always nervously glance at the empty chair in front of me as I ordered, convinced that I must have had friends coming). At night on the evening TG, during the scary news stories on about the dwindling fish stocks in the Mediterranean, I’d close the hotel drapes, feeling as if I were Hannibal, leaving a wake of mangled fish bones and smoking mollusk shells. Not that that had any effect on the next day’s lunch.
Twice a day, I’d order a bottle of something cold and local and white, coupled with ALL the fish specials. It was the grilled scampi that become my favourite while riding down the Adriatic, their sweet and briny meat still warm when forked out of its singed and salty shell, followed by the stealy swish of a cold white, two tastes, almost as old as the taste of cold water.
I didn’t find them in each town down along the coast, but when I did, each one was like a cherished letter from home.
Students almost never like to hear this, but it doesn’t make the statement any less true: There are very, very fish recipes in Italy, comparatively. Is a grilled sea bass really a recipe? No, not really. It’s a technique and what I learned on that bike trip, was that very, very little of the incredible food on offer changed much as I headed south, regardless of region (something you won’t find in the terrestrial food in Latin Europe).
Here in the South of Italy, there is a tasty little twist on grilled scampi: peperoncino e la menta. It’s a classic left-hook, right jab, the heat from red chilli peppers, chilled by wintery affect of mint. It’s a stunning combination, the spiffy necktie that makes that old suit seem new again.
Today I’ll set the table in the garden, just for one. I’ll pull the white from the refrigerator, the bottle almost instantly slippery wet in my hand. I’ll retrieve gli scampi from the grill and sit down to silent lunch in Lecce. Perhaps the timid cat that I’ve somehow inherited will venture out of his adopted home- my tool-shed- at the briny, flame-licked smells.
That my tongue will take my brain around the world as I eat- To loud laughing dinners in Catalunya, cherished friends that I’ve know for decades, to sore muscles, road maps and the oddly-cadenced accents of Commacchio and Chioggia, to a Cornwall pub where the sounds of televised referee’s whistle became the soundtrack- it’s tastes that are real souvenirs of travel. And perhaps even life.
Everything else is just bric-a-brac, isn’t it?