From the nets to the salt
Text: Maro Voulgari
Salted fish and their recipes
“Pull up your net, oh fisherman, but gently not to break it.
I gather this time you’ve caught scores and scores of fish.”
Preserving fish in salt –salt-curing– is an ancient Mediterranean technique aimed at storing and preserving fish outside the refrigerator, and feed fishermen’s families in the harsh winter months.
It seems that the secrets of salt-curing were brought to Greece by our ancestors, the Koutalians –fishermen and spongers from the island of Koutali in the Bosporus. These had been the main suppliers of fish and sponges in Constantinople, providing their families and their island with a source of sustenance.
They gutted the fish and kept in a thick layer of salt. Salt-curing was initially done in wooden vats. They covered the bottom of the vat with a layer of salt, then placed layers of fish on top of it, alternating with layers of salt.
They weighed down the salted layers with a wooden lid-like utensil allowing the fish to exude their liquid (garum) and the salt to penetrate every gap between their layers. Successive layers of fish and salt were added, until the vat was filled up to the brim. Then they closed it securing it with the lid. The cured fish was left to ferment in salt and garum, and was ready for consumption within one to two months. This vat was an oversized wooden “can,” the forerunner of the tin can as well as the metal can that appeared much later in the 40’s.
In Nea Koutali, set up in 1926 on the island of Lemnos to accommodate the refugees from Koutali of Propontis, large 2-metre-diameter barrels, serving as fish cleaning tanks, are preserved to this day (in the salt-curing facility of “Limnios” – Vassiliadis), along with boxing machinery (Vassiliadis and Zakharov) and salt milling machines (Vassiliadis, Sariklis).
The Koutalians were intensively involved in salt-curing. They sourced fish from the surrounding area, salt-cured it, and carried it in their merchant ships to distribute and sell it in the markets of Pontus, the coasts of Asia Minor (Ayvalik, Smyrna) the Aegean, and the Mediterranean.
In island households, the recipes have been passed down from grandparents. In fact, common folks’ makeshift contrivances are similar all over the world and, arguably, they were widely used in parallel with professional salt-curing without anyone claiming their paternity.
In Aliki bay, fisherman Akis Skandalis sets his table with anchovies and lakerda (salt-cured bonito), accompanying them with chilled souma. To the question “Which of the island’s fish can be salt-cured?”, he answers: sardines, anchovies and bonitos. Mackerels can be salt-cured, as well as sun-dried.
The salt-curing workshop in Naoussa
On March 20, Naias, the Nautical Club of Naoussa, held a fish salt-curing workshop delivered from the older to the younger and the newcomers. At Ai Nicholas, right beside the boats, fresh fish, newly arrived from the sea, was washed, sliced, salted, with the people relish a great piscatorial experience and the lesson turning into an open-air feast led by the local captains.
There, at the Vitsadakis’ “Ypapanti” and the Vassilaros’ “Sultana” fishing boats, at the Chamilothoris’ ouzo restaurant and at Barbarossa’s roofed patio, we learned the ropes of fish preservation and exchanged recipes from our respective countries and grandparents. The fish was salted and placed into vinegar, and on the day of the Annunciation, after the mass, a splendid treat was offered in the alley where the homonymous church stands, outside the “Old Market,” as the last gathering of the locals before Easter and the tourist season. Marinated anchovies, sardines and salt-cured bonitos, octopus in vinegar and the classic battered cod accompanied the souma, the conversations, the exchanging of wishes and the laughter of the people who brace themselves for a bustling, busy summer.
The event was called “salt-cured fish,” and we hope it will become fully established into the recurring local traditions. Salt-cured and sun-dried fish can be savoured in most ouzo restaurants and eateries on the island. Some of them are owned by fishermen, so they provide much more than a local delicacy – they offer a rare gastronomic experience!
CURING ANCHOVIES AND SARDINES
Clean the anchovy, cut off the heads, wash it thoroughly in the sea and let it drain, says Akis Skandalis. In a shallow pan, alternate layers of fish and salt and douse with strong, local vinegar. Let it ferment for 24 hours and then take out of the brine, remove the spines and finally dip it in seed oil adding hot pepper, garlic and parsley. Make sure it is consumed on the same day. Sardines can be prepared in exactly the same way, but they take more time to ferment in salt and vinegar. Here, too, the secret is giving them a good wash in clean sea water after removing the heads to rinse off the blood.
He catches the bonitos himself. The small-sized bonito that weighs under two kilos is called skipjack tuna. He cuts the larger bonitos weighing around 3-4 kilos into about four pieces and prepares a brine with salt and water, testing its salinity with the egg method (he dips the egg into the brine and, if it contains the right amount of salt, the egg floats to the surface). “I use sea water for the brine,” as he says, “so as to add less salt. The bonito remains in this brine for about 14 days. If the fish is smaller, it is allowed to sit in brine for about a week. To make sure it is completely covered in the brine, I always place a plate on top of it. When it is ready, I take it out, fillet it, remove the skin and the spines and preserve it in good quality –organic– sunflower oil.”
THE RENOWNED GOUNA (SUN-DRIED FISH)
Gouna is not a type of fish but a preparation method. Gouna is a way of curing mackerel and horse mackerel. “So, you catch the fish,” saya the fisherman, you slice it open, clean it, season it with salt and pepper, add some oregano, and hang it somewhere to air dry. So, this type of sun-curing is actually dry-curing, which must be done in a north facing spot as this prevents insects from infecting the fish (we do the same thing to sun-dry octopus). When the fish is dried, it can be lightly cooked or stored in the freezer.
It was the typical skimpy meal during the Nazi Occupation, the humble bogue that is caught, salted and then hung on the rooftop, always in north winds. The bogue would dry up losing all its juices, but it was a safe, protein-rich dried food in trying times. Bortolino was eaten plain, accompanied by souma or added into the soup for extra flavour.