Matters of taste: Tuscan trout
Roast trout and warm potato salad make the perfect spring supper if you live in Tuscany—and even if you don’t
Looking at the river as it runs through central Bagni di Lucca—the part of Tuscany where my house is—it is hard to imagine any trout flourishing in there. When the river is low there are tangles of torn plastic bags in the trees; when it’s high the water rushes through town in a terrifying tsunami, all brown and churning. Less than ideal conditions for a growing troutlet.
Yet the fish siphoned off into Ennio’s gloomy green tanks appear to be in the peak of good health. Until, obviously, he knocks them dead with his murderous stick—which is actually called a “priest.” As Ennio is the local choir master as well as the trout man, this is somehow satisfying.
Ennio has a vast, cavernous warehouse right on the main road. The river water pours through pipes in the wall and seems to leak everywhere. The building used to be a paper factory. I am deeply ignorant about the production of paper, but I know that it stinks of rotten eggs and involves lots of water—and Ennio has lots of water. Shallow puddles on the dirt floor, green dripping mould on the high walls and deep open tanks in which the trout thrash and squirm about, hoping to evade their destiny.
The sign on the plank outside says “trote vive” (live trout) in once bright-green paint. If you ring the dangerous-looking electric bell, hanging off its wire on the gate, nothing happens. When it is raining—and it rains a lot in the Bagni di Lucca area—this is particularly disappointing. Lorries thunder past and, after a while, Ennio trundles up in his three-wheeler and unlocks the 50-foot high doors to his giant’s lair.
He scoops up the trout in a big net, kills them with a swift blow to the head, guts them with a pair of scissors and weighs them in rusting grocers scales. He could sell those scales to the props department of a costume drama in which Julie Walters, wearing a Regency bonnet and long gloves, goes to buy a pound of carrots.
Ennio then hurls the trout, still twitching, into a plastic bag. They are usually still twitching when I get them home. Ideally, in this scenario, my husband has been stoking the pizza oven in the garden for four hours. I come through the gates with my bag of fat fish and there he is, charcoal-faced and poker-wielding. You can buy baby trout for trotine, served like whitebait, battered and deep fried, but for the best trota al forno you need the grown-ups.
So, you have to put a big spiky sprig (or is it a branch?) of rosemary, a peeled clove of garlic, a sage leaf and a lot of salt in the trout cavity. Then you put the fish in an oven dish, tip a bit of olive oil and salt on top and plunge it into the middle of a pizza oven—or any old oven—and cook until the skin goes crispy and the eyes very white.
They are nice with crunchy-skinned baked potatoes, a dollop of salty yoghurt instead of butter, and a green salad with lemon juice and salt instead of dressing. They are even nicer with a warm potato salad. This is really easy to make and people love it. Take enough new potatoes for four people, even if there are only two of you. Boil them until they’re quite soft and then cut them in half and put them in a bowl. Fry two or three cloves of sliced garlic in a tablespoon or two of nice olive oil until the garlic is brown and crispy. Tip this on to the potatoes. Then ladle a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise and about 50g of butter on them as well and stir it all up (the potatoes have to be really hot so the butter melts). Chop a few spring onions and throw them in too with lots of salt and pepper. Churn it up with a wooden spoon and then try not to eat it all by yourself.
I like to eat this outside, breathing in the smoke of the mosquito spirals and the pizza oven and drinking pear-tasting prosecco or sharp, chalky Gavi. Even in Tuscany, where good red is cheap, there is nothing wrong with drinking prosecco at every meal, especially when it’s just spring and the days are getting warmer, the broad beans and asparagus greener and the fish skins seem especially pink and pearly.
Oh, and make lemon tart for pudding.
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