A Summer in the Islands

By Matthew Fort

A carefree exploration of the culture and cuisines of the Italian islands

Friday, 17 February 2017

Dinner with Francesco, Giglio

Before he starts cooking in the smallest kitchen in the world, Francesco brings up a couple of 2-litre bottles of his wine, Ansonaco. It’s the colour of winter sunshine. We drink it at cellar temperature, as he prefers. Chilling it, he says, reduces its distinctive flavours.


’It’s from the bottom of the container,’ says Francesco.  ‘It's — how do you say? — better than the clear wine. It has more character.' 


The wine has a curious, astringent nose, of crab apple and mirabelle plums, but tastes ethereal, gentle, sunny and fresh, with a slight resinous edge. It has an exquisite balance and dawdles expansively around my mouth.


‘What’s your philosophy of wine making?' I ask him, mindful of Stefano Farkas eloquent expositions of his approach to making wine.


'I don't have one, 'Francesco says ' Philosophy is blah, blah, blah. The wine is the wine. That is the philosophy.'


There are standard wines,' he goes on, 'and there’re wines like mine, that aren’t standard.’


He pours me a glass of sangiovese produced by a colleague in mainland Tuscany. It’s smooth, handsome and immaculately tailored with suave, well-behaved fruit, something of a Savile Row wine. It’s a style that I recognise immediately and enjoy.


‘That's a standard wine,' explains Francesco. ‘It's a good wine, well-made. The standard is high. But it’s a standard. It has no individuality. It’ll never be much better or much worse.'


Modern winemaking techniques and knowledge have improved the general quality of wines immeasurably since the days when I first started drinking the stuff.  It‘s very rare to get an absolute stinker of a wine these days, while memories of Don Cortes Spanish Burgundy, Bull’s Blood, Blue Nun and Black Tower of my student days still cause involuntary acid reflux. However, along the way, it seems to me that many wines have lost some of their distinctive character. Overall the palate of contemporary wines has narrowed, become smoother, sweeter and more predictable. The depths to which some wines were once prone to sink might have vanished, but so, too, have the individualistic heights.


As we drink, Francesco prepares dinner. He cooks as he speaks, with careful deliberation, attending to each detail with meticulous care. It isn't a speedy process. 


We start with salted anchovies that he’s made himself.


‘You can eat them after a couple of months, but they are better after a year,’ he says.


He’s already washed off the salt and taken out the backbones before submerging the fillets in olive oil for a day. He takes them out of the oil, and, while they drain, slowly chops a green shoot of a Tropea onion against his thumb with the scarred blade of an old Opinel knife. He slices some flakes of peel from a lemon and griddles a few slices of bread and rubs them with garlic. He heaps three or four of the anchovy fillets, onion shoots and lemon peel onto the bread and hands it to me . The anchovies have the texture of chilled butter and a mellow meatiness, carrying sweet onion and citrus oil and garlic and the slight bitterness from where the ridges of the griddle pan has burnt the bread.


Then Francesco cleans and descales the red mullet, bream and scorfano - scorpion fish - he bought from the fishmonger a few hours earlier. He chops a couple of  onions and adds them to the olive oil in a sauté pan, mauled and dull from long use. He puts in a little chilli for good measure, scatters a handful of fresh broad beans on top and carefully places the fish in the pan so that they form a single layer, pours a glass of fresh water over them and sets the dish to a gentle shimmer.


While he’s cleaning the fish, he finds a sac of roe. He washes the roe in salt water that he keeps in a bottle on the floor, and squeezes the raw roe out of its containing membrane into a bowl. He splashes a little olive oil over it and beats the roe and oil vigorously with a fork. When there’s a smooth emulsion, he hands the bowl to me.


'Fish mayonnaise,' he says. 'If you wash it in seawater, it doesn't need any salt. Put it on the toast.' It has a delicate but distinct fishiness. He pours a little more fresh water over the cooking fish. There’s no sense of hurry about Francesco’s cooking, just a steady deliberation about each stage.


He shakes a fine, brindled Mediterranean crayfish — aragosta — out from under a damp cloth in a plastic bag. The creature waves its long antennae in a kind of world-weary protest at its cavalier treatment. Francesco takes a large knife and forcefully cuts off the chunky tail.  He sticks the head upright in a bowl. The antennae give one last, despairing twitch, and are still. Painstakingly and precisely he cuts the tail into sections and the head in half.


Before he puts the tail sections into the pan, he carefully extracts the bright orange sacks of raw roe. He pops one into his mouth, opening his eyes wide.


'Perché no? Why not?' he says, and adds more water and the crayfish juices to the simmering fish.


I try a sac of roe. It’s gentle, sweet and creamy with a very slight graininess.


Francesco treats each ingredient as if it has a particular point, flavour or virtue.  Each action is a stage in a closely observed ritual expanded over many minutes as he stops to tell a story, make an observation, reflect on this or that. 


And so while he cooks, he tells me about his life as an engineer in Florence; how he once designed a building that was built without cement; about his daughters from his first marriage; how he met Gabriella, and why they came to Giglio; how they’d run a restaurant together, he cooking, she taking care of the front of house; the politics of wine production on Giglio. At one point he stops, searches for some missing piece of equipment and blames his inability to find it on Cinciut, which or who, says Francesco, is un diavoletto, a Triestino domestic goblin, who hides car keys, slips bills for payment into the wastepaper basket, trips you up with a shoe on the floor, who’s responsible for those tiny, irritating hiccups that interrupt the smooth flow of a well-run life.


We finally begin eating the fish around midnight.  With infinite patience Francesco scrapes away the skin and the bones of a mullet, before putting the pearly white flesh on my plate, along with a section of aragosta tail. 


'Take some of the juices,' he commands, 'and the broad beans.’


‘Perché no?’ I say. Fish, crayfish, broad beans, juices, simple, complex, all the world in each mouthful, food to eat for the rest of my life. I wipe my plate clean with bread so thoroughly it gleams as if it’s been washed.


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