One of the best kept culinary secrets in Italy is the cuisine of northern Lazio in and around the city of Viterbo, an area known as the Tuscia. The style of cooking in this area is a kind of fusion between the lusty cooking of Roman to its south with the simple rusticity of Tuscany to the north.
One of the main geographical features of the area is a large volcanic lake called Lago di Bolsena, very close to the border with Tuscany. The abundant eel from the lake is famous, and has given birth to a local saying that «Vino de Montefiascone e anguilla de Bolsena, nun c’e’ mejo cena» or “There is no better dinner than wine from Montefiascone with eels from Bolsena.” The inhabitants of the Tuscia have developed several ways for preparing the local eel, but by far the most famous is this braised dish named after the picturesque island of Bisentina in the middle of the lake.
- Eel (about 250g or 1/2 lb. per person),
- 1-2 cloves of garlic
- A sprig of fresh rosemary,a handful of fresh sage leaves and a small bay leaf, finely minced together
- Olive oil
- Salt, pepper and a pinch of hot pepper flakes
- Puréed canned tomato
The method for making this dish is rather unusual, as it inverts the usual sequence of dry followed by wet cooking. You being with a good glassful of vinegar in a skillet, which you bring to a simmer. Then place your eel pieces into the vinegar together with one or two cloves of garlic and a mixture of rosemary, sage and bay leaf, minced very finely, almost to a powder. (A spice grinder is especially useful here.) As the pieces simmer in this aromatic mixture, the flesh will begin to stiffen. Turn the pieces so they are evenly coated with the herbs and absorb the vinegar.
Fairly soon, the vinegar will evaporate, at which point you should pour in a generous amount of olive oil, season the eel with salt, pepper and some red pepper flakes. Then add the tomato purée, together with a bit of water, cover the skillet and allow the whole to simmer until the eel is tender, about 15-20 minutes.
Serve immediately with some crusty bread to ‘fare la scarpetta‘ with that delicious pan sauce.