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Angelo our fishmonger al castello

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(‘Di fiducia’, is the concept in Italian, ‘trusted’.  This is the second part in a eight – part series about our trusted friends that you’ll meet during our courses al castello. Based in Lecce, Italy, for the last 12 years, we move our school and staff south 40 minutes to the castle on select occasions throughout the year. The castle (il castello) makes up a quarter of the historic centre of a village of 3,000 Southern Italians. Genuine, folksy and soberingly unjaded, here are several that you’ll meet al castello in 2015).

‘I know it’s a clichè but when I’m not working here in my shop, my favourite thing in the entire world is to go fishing’, says Angelo, tapping clams, one by one to hear the noise that would indicate that one could be full of sand. I’ve only known him a year but I find myself slipping into his shop, even when I’ve already arranged to have other foods for lunch. IMG_8963

Angelo’s shop is still decorated the way you might decorate a sleeper car on a train or your bed in a military barracks: a crucifix, an old picture of a long-gone relative, a cheap trinket with a private story.

‘Have you ever been to the Ionian coast?’, I ask him, slightly poking fun.IMG_8964

‘Of course’, he says.

‘When was the last time?’

‘I was 7’, he says, fulling aware of the local stereotype he’s promoting.

Here in the Salento, sure we have two coasts, but for most people that is one too many. You pick a favourite and then almost brag about not visiting the other.

‘What do you fish for, which fish is your favourite to eat?’, I ask.

‘The answer is obvious’, he says.

‘It is?’

‘le seppie?’, he says. ‘Cuttlefish’.

Angelo isn’t the first fishmonger to reveal his love of one of the cheapest fish on his marble slab. Fresh sardines. Fresh anchovies. You half expect that it would be the more expensive fish that would light up their eyes: that never seems to be the case.

‘We’re going to need 16 sea bass on the 9th of next month and 5 kilos of mussels too’, I say as he writes down the order.

 

We’ve taken students in to meet him, which I always love. It might be because the tools that he uses to break down fish are so pedestrian and low-tech that they often make fish seem less daunting. ‘If a pro only needs a little knife and an old pair of scissors, how hard could it be?’, you can see the thought flash across their faces.

But Angelo also always pushes the mackerel, a fish that seems to be oddly exempt from overfishing. With a few exceptions, there is a dangerous trend of trendiness in fish today: most cultures are blind to all fish except for one or two darlings at a time. People will even say it aloud, something to the tune of, ‘I only ate tuna from ’86 to 94′ then switched to swordfish until I discovered trout’. What these trends do to the seas is heartbreaking, especially when you consider that much is harvested with indiscriminate nets. Install quotas, and that just guarantees that the overfished goes back over board before returning to the shore.

How an eye goes blind to all but a single species makes me sad. And that it happens to entire cultures and economies seems negligent bordering on criminal. When I’m without students I often walk into his shop and say, ‘Give me whatever looks good to you today’, knowing that I might end up leaving with less than a favourite fish. Or that I might have to dig out a cookbook or keystroke the name of the fish into Youtube to understand how to cook it. If you ever come to the school, you’ll hear the stories, nearly all of them involving a great meal and me learning something new and spiffy about fish cookery. Plus, how many fish have other fish inside of them reveals how little vegetarianism seems to be trending underwater.

Thanking him I notice a new painting on the wall, a sign that each day he is a little more settled here in town, a subtle signal that Angelo is a little more cemented as a permanent part of our castle courses.

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