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If you’ve been following Serena’s detective story, you’ll have noticed that Ispettore Augusto has a passion for cacciucco, a traditional dish from the Livorno area. So, what is cacciucco, and where did it come from?
By Geoff (who doesn’t really like seafood) and Serena (who wants to be a mermaid).
What Is Cacciucco?
Il Cacciucco is a fish stew containing an eclectic mix of seafood: from octopus and mussels to monkfish and tub gurnard, all cooked in a tomato sauce and served on top of slices of bread which have been toasted and rubbed with garlic.
The name can also be spelt ‘caciucco’, but a true Livornese will insist that it be spelled with five c’s: cacciucco. There are several hypotheses about the origins of the name, the most credible being that it derives from the Turkish word küçük, meaning ‘small dimensions’, with reference to the fact all the ingredients are chopped in little pieces.
The Origins Of Il Cacciucco
According to a Livornese legend, a local fisherman, abroad in his vessel, was caught by a sudden tempest and drowned. His family were left in poverty, and the hungry children were forced to go down to the port and beg leftovers from the fishermen. Each of the fishermen offered something different to the children: an octopus, a prawn, a squid, and so on. At home, their mother prepared a soup with this mixture of charity seafood, and poured the result into bowls in which she’d placed slices of toasted bread. The delicious aroma, drifting from the open window, prompted her neighbours to ask for the recipe, and hence il cacciucco was born.
Another theory claims that il cacciucco is a representation of Livorno’s multi-ethnic population. Like many ports, Livorno is a melting pot of different races and cultures: Hebrew, Armenian, Greek, German, Portuguese, French, Dutch and English. This variety of seafoods fused together in a single dish supposedly represents Livorno’s cultural mish-mash.
However, according to Paolo Zalum, a Livornese historian of Syrian origin, il cacciucco was invented by a custodian of il Fanale, the port’s lighthouse. The Florentine Republic forbade the frying of fish at the lighthouse in an edict dictating that oil should be used exclusively as fuel for the important lamp. The lighthouse keeper thus invented a dish which required very little oil in its preparation, hence: il cacciucco.
The most credible hypothesis for the invention of cacciucco though, is that the dish was made from the unsold leftovers from the fish market. What is certain is that cacciucco, composed as it is from less valuable seafood, was served on le galee (the galleys) of the 1500’s to feed the prisoners shackled to benches and forced to row the vessels.
2 cloves of garlic; 1 fresh chilli; a handful of parsley; 2 celery stalks: 50 ml of extra virgin olive oil; 2 onions; 200 grams of peeled plum tomatoes; 750 grams of monkfish; 850 grams of red scorpionfish; 450 grams of squids; 400 grams of prawns; 650 grams of octopus; 300 grams of cuttlefish; 1 kg of mussels; 180 ml of white wine; salt and freshly ground pepper; 5 black peppercorns; 2 litres of water.
Clean, boil and shell the mussels (you can set a few aside in their shells to decorate the dish if you’re feeling all arty). Clean and chop the octopus, squids and cuttlefish into small pieces. Clean the monkfish and the red scorpionfish by removing the entrails, heads, fins, and then skin them. Cut the fish into thin fillets. Shell the prawns. Put all the discarded parts of the fish and prawns aside, except for the entrails.
Now you’ll need to prepare the fish stock: chop one onion, one celery stalk and one clove of garlic. Put them together in a large saucepan together with the discarded fish parts and heat on a moderate flame. Add 8o ml of wine and the five peppercorns and let the liquid evaporate gently until it’s almost dry. Add the water and bring it to the boil, reduce the heat and cook for about 40-50 minutes. Sieve the stock to separate it from the solids and set it aside.
Now for the cacciucco itself: finely chop the remaining onion, celery, garlic and chilli and put them in a big saucepan (or preferably terracotta casserole) together with the olive oil. Add the octopus and leave to cook for 10 minutes. Add the squid and cuttlefish and cook for another 5 minutes, then pour the remaining wine over it and let it evaporate gently.
Crush the tomatoes with a fork and put them in the saucepan or casserole with 250 ml of the fish stock. Season with salt and pepper, cover and leave to simmer for about 1 hour. At this point add the fish fillets, being careful not to break them, the prawns, and 500 ml of the fish stock. Cover and cook gently for another 10 minutes, finally adding the mussels and cooking for a further 10 minutes.
In the meantime toast the slices of bread and rub them with garlic. Put a couple of slices in each bowl, and pour the fish stew over them. Serve hot.
Tip: If you want to sample cacciucco without all the fuss, it’d probably be simpler to become a prisoner on a 16th century galley!