Eating with Francesco

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Eating with Francesco

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Gabriella goes to attend to a friend who is very ill. Francesco proceeds to cook a dinner of great magnificence. He cooks as he speaks, with careful deliberation, attending to each detail with meticulous care.

We start with home salted anchovy fillets. ‘You can eat them after a couple of months but they are better after a year’, he says. The salt has been washed off and the backbones carefully taken out before being submerged in olive oil. He takes them out of the oil, and slowly chops the green part of a Tropea onion on top and then flakes some lemon peel over that with the balde of an old Opinel knife. He griddles some bread and subs it with garlic. He heaps some of the anchovy fillets, onion shoot and lemon peel onto the bread. The anchovy has a deep meatiness, carrying sweet onion and citrus oil and garlic and the slight bitterness of where the ridges of the griddle pan had burnt the bread.

He cleans and descales the fish he bought from the fishmonger a few hours earlier. I recognise red mullet, bream, scorfano – scorpion fish. Others I don’t know. He chops some onion and adds it to the olive oil in what might be called a saute pan. It’s battered and dull from long use. He adds a little chilli for good measure. He adds some broad beans. He carefully places the fish in the pan so that they form a single layer. He adds a little water.

While he was cleaning the fish, he found some roe. He washes the roe in salt water that he keeps in a bottle on the floor, and squeezes the raw roe out of it containing membrane into a bowl. He splashes a little olive oil over it and proceeds to beat the two together with a fork. When there is a smooth emulsion he hands the bowl to me.

‘Fish mayonnaise,’ he says. ‘If you wash it in sea water, it doesn;t need any salt. Put it on the toast.’ It has a delicate, mild but distinct fishy flavour. He pours a little more water over the cooking fish.

He shakes a fine, brindles Mediterranean crayfish – arrogosta – out from under a damp cloth in a plastic bag. The creature waves its long antennae in a kind of world weary protest. Franscesco takes a large knife and forcefully cuts off the meaty tail. Immediately he picks up the head and sticks it upright on a bowl. The antennae give one last, seemingly despairing, twitch, and are still.
Painstakingly and slowly he cuts the tail into sections. He cuts the head in half.

Before he puts the head and 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.

‘Perche no?’ he says, and adds more water and the crayfish juices to the simmering fish.

I try a sack of roe. It’s sweet, gentle, smooth, with a very slight graininess and a clear flavour of lobster. Or crayfish.

Each action is part of a closely observed ritual. There is no part of the fish or the crayfish that is wasted, except the scales and innards. Each ingredient is seen as having a particular point, flavour, virtue. Every part of this ritual is expanded over many minutes. He stops to tell a story, make an observation, reflect on this or that.

‘I just take what the fisherman gives me,’ says Francesco.

He gives me a glass of his wine, the Ansonaco, made from grapes grown on his vineyard at Altramura. It is cloudy yellow, the colour of winter sunshine -‘from the bottom of the container. 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 to taste it’s sunny and fresh, not sour at all, but with a slight resiny edge. It’s quite unlike any other wine I have drunk and fits comfortably around the food.

‘What is your approach, your philosophy to wine making?’ I ask.

‘I don’t have one,’he says.’ The wine is the wine. That is the philosophy. Philosophy is blah, blah, blah.’

He pours me a glass of a wine, a sangiovese, produced by colleague in Tuscany. It’s smooth, handsome, with well-behaved fruit. It’s a style that I immediately recognise.

‘That is a standard wine,’ explains Francesco. ‘It is a good wine, well-made. The standard is high. But it is a standard. It has no individuality. It will never be better or worse.’ Which, I realise, is true.

We begin eating the fish around midnight. With infinite patience he scrapes away the skin and the bones on a mullet, and puts the pearly white flesh on my plate, along with a section of arragosta tail. ‘Take some of the juices,’ he commands, ‘and the broad beans.’

The fish has that clean, sparkling, full flavour that comes when it’s very fresh.
The aragosta is dense, sweet as toffee. The juice has thickened with the the favours of fish, the shellfish, the oil, the onions, the beans.

As we eat, Francesco tells me how they have a concert in the vineyard at Altamura at the end of each July.

‘And these are serious musicians. One is from the Nuova Quatetto Italiano. Another from I Soloisti Veneti. The bring their Stradivari and their Amati instruments. People say ‘But oh, what about the sun, the humidity, blah, blah, blah, but the instruments don’t seem to mind. People sit on the rocks to listen. And when the concert is over and the people have gone, we have a dinner in the vineyard, us and the musicians. It is incredible.’

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