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.
Ingredients: eel (about 250g or 1/2 lb. per person), vinegar, 1-2 cloves of garlic, a sprig of fresh rosemary, a handful of fresh sage leaves, a small bay leaf, olive oil, salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes, pureed canned tomato.
Preparation: Eel needs to be skinned, trimmed of its head and tail, and cut into shortish sections of 3 or 4 inches. In Italy, the center bone of the eel is usually left on. The skinning can be quite a job, so ask your fish monger to do it. The eel I got was both skinned and (unfortunately) filleted as well, so I had only to cut the fillets into sections.
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 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.
NOTES: If you get a whole eel and need to prep it yourself, check out this explanation from eHow. It’s a rather tricky operation and eels should actually be (quite literally) skinned alive—the longer you wait after they’ve been done in, the more slippery and difficult the skinning process will be—so hopefully your friendly local fish monger can do the job for you. Ask him, however, only to skin the eel and cut it into sections, and not to fillet it. The bone actually adds a lot of flavor. It can be hard to find eel in your average supermarket, but Italian or Asian fish markets are a good bet.
Eel is unusual for a ‘fish’, since it actually needs a fairly long braising period. The flesh tightens up when heated, and it needs a bit of time to relax again and become tender, so before serving, test a small piece. If it is still a bit ‘chewy’, give it a few more minutes.
Viterbo, by the way, is a lovely little town, under appreciated by tourists, that is well worth a visit. I went there fairly often when I was living in Rome. Whenever the stress of city living became too much, I would check into the nearby Terme dei Papi, a hot spring resort, and saunter around the slow paced town. There is much to see: the walls, the towers, the fountains and the historic palazzi built in the local volcanic stone called peperino. The town was once the seat of the Popes, and boasts a medieval Papal palace (1261) as well as several ancient churches. It was from an incident here that the word ‘conclave’ comes from. After Clement VI died in 1268, the assembled cardinals were taking so long to decide on the new pope that the local population locked them in ‘cum clave‘ (‘with a key’) to encourage them to make up their minds. They quickly did so, electing Gregory XI after an amazing two years and ten months of deliberation.
The medieval quarter of Viterbo
While once in Viterbo, I picked up a charming little cookbook called Tuscia in tavola. It has all sorts of local recipes, including several ways to prepare the famous local eels. I doubt that the book has been translated, but the official website of the province of Viterbo has a page on the local cuisine. It is also in Italian, but you can translate it with the Google toolbar or some other online translation tool. Among other things, you will find a recipe for making this dish, going by its alternative name of anguilla alla pescatora.
The lovely Isola Bisentina
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