Nov 29, 2010

Fishing for compliments


The one weak spot in seafood is its perishable nature. Already after few hours from being caught, the heinous action of enzymes and microorganisms begins to attack fish. This more so during torrid summer months, when the high temperatures hasten the alteration process. It is however not impossible to identify truly fresh fish.

As handed down by expert fisherman, old family friend and Positano sea authority Salvatore Capraro, here is a checklist of what you should always consider when buying your beautiful fresh pesce.

  • Rigidity: when holding a bony fish horizontally by the head, the body should never fall limp, rather maintain a somewhat stiff condition. 
  • Firmness: flesh should appear solid yet elastic to the touch. A good trick is to press a finger gently on the fleshy part: the trademark of freshness is if the dent disappears almost immediately.
  • Eyes: fish eyes must be alive, shiny, convex and rounded to the outside. An eye that is sunken or flat, opaque and dull looking means the fish has been dead for a long time.
  • Skin: must appear lustrous and well taut. Scales, if present, should remain well attached to the body, even when lightly stroked in opposite growth direction. Furthermore, in extremely fresh fish, the entire body is usually shrouded by a thin and translucent organic film.
  • Gills: should always be pinkish-red, intact, clasped shut and laced with transparent mucus. If the fish has a blowhole or nostrils, they should always be found tightly closed too.
  • Belly: the abdomen of the fish is the part that contains all the entrails, and which is the easiest to alter. If that should happen in a fish, the belly would result flaccid or swollen. A fresh fish’s belly is instead turgid and flexible.
  • Smell: Extremely fresh fish smells like the sea. A salty, marine fragrance. The aroma should be subtle and never unpleasant.
  • Fins & Tail: must be in perfect condition, never frayed.

When buying squid, octopus or calamari, the best way to judge the tentacled creature’s freshness is by closely examining its color. It should always be bright and clear. After a few days, colors fade and become opaque, and in the central "belly" areas, the flesh acquires a yellowish-gray tone. Three to four days from the catch, cephalopode skin begins to form new colors, initially in small specks, then extending to larger body areas in various shades of pink, all the way to a burgundy wine color. At this point, the mollusk is no longer edible.



The role of seafood in the Italian diet has always been very important. Up until the early 60s, the Catholic Church required that the faithful eat fish on Fridays and all days of penitence, for example all during Lent. Most large cities had fishmongers to meet this demand, but there were also traveling fish merchants who, on their itinerary, covered those towns too small to support a specialized fish store. Globalization has wiped out this custom almost completely.

Many local pescivendoli and pescivendole – Italian for fishmongers and fishwives – are a dying breed. With the advent of the many modern ways of packing and distributing food, larger retail establishments often opt for less expensive alternatives to these highly skilled professionals. Fishmongers are in fact trained at selecting and purchasing, handling, gutting, boning, filleting and selling their marine product.

You can read more about surviving neighborhood fishmongers like Signor Mastroianni pictured above, in the article I contributed to The Travel Belles.

23 comments:

  1. Ciao! Interesting post!!

    http://greekitaliangirl.blogspot.com/

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  2. All the more reason for me to leave the fish choosing to the experts. There's so much involved with it.

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  3. When doing work as beautiful as yours, no need to fish for compliments, they should be pouring in by the bucket-full from all over the world, should be crisp, shining, and retain a the fresh perfumed scent of friendship...
    :-)

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  4. Thanks for these great tips!

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  5. that lookslike a really cool market lola...good intel on the freshness of fish...

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  6. I love reading your blog because I always learn from you. Growing up Catholic, we always ate fish during lent -- always. I've always thought that it was only because of the "no meat" rule and had no idea that it was ordered by the church. I always found the thought of it as a "lenten sacrifice" quite a bit suspect as Friday nights at the seafood restaurant were always a treat and certainly no hardship.

    Happy Day.
    Dana

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  7. Alessandra~
    Thanks!

    ~~~

    KarenG~
    Are you a seafood lover?

    ~~~

    Owen~
    Thank you sweet friend, you are too kind!

    ~~~

    Frank~
    Prego!

    ~~~

    Brian~
    I put going to the market on a par with visiting an amusement park!

    ~~~

    Dana~
    Food-associated activities (including eating) can never be a hardship!

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  8. Here in Southern Spain, we're very fortunate to have a lot of very freshly caught fish. But will be purchasing with even sharper eyes now thanks to yr informative post!

    XOXO Lola:)
    PS So pleased we're linked up again. Can only endorse Owen's comment about the "fresh perfumed scent" of Lola friendship!

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  9. Useful tips, I shall print this out as a reminder, thankyou.

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  10. Nora~
    Thank you! I really don't understand what happened, but you are not the first to be randomly crossed off my reader... Loco Blogger.

    ~~~

    Linda~
    I'm not this informed on fresh water fish, I wonder if the same rules apply...
    Any insider tips? ;)

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  11. Thanks for the tips - especially the calamari and octopus section. Had no idea what to look for with those.

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  12. This is one grand informative post.

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  13. JayP~
    Ciao! I'm happy you found this useful.

    ~~~

    Claudia~
    Grazie! Hugs

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  14. Love the variety, the pride in the fishmonger's face.

    We don't get variety like this in the States. Fisheries have restricted catch of species each season.

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  15. Rosaria~
    Restricted catch is a good thing! I wish there were more severe laws here protecting our Mediterranean waters from overfishing, bycatch, detrimental methods, etc. Stewardship Council, Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean Institute, Friend of the Sea, SASSI, Living Oceans... I'm a supporter of all. Will be posting more about this topic soon.

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  16. Ooo, it all looks so good! Living in Tokyo I have learned to be very fussy about the freshness of the fish I buy and eat! That said, my neighbourhood lacks a good fishmonger at the moment—definitely a dying breed, as you say. Sad.

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  17. Mlee~
    How sad! I thought Tokyo didn't have these problems... Then again much of our Mediterranean fish gets flown to Japan!

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  18. lola, very very useful. thank you.

    i eat alot of fish and here in coastal new england fish is prominent. i never buy a whole fish though and lately i'm finding i can no longer subject fresh lobsters to boiling water. :(

    in my town there is still a very small local fish market, always fresh. shrimp, scallops, cod, founder, salmon, tuna, swordfish. but already ready for me. not bones, no skin.

    by the way: TSUP! and ♥ to you this holiday season. are you cooking up a storm? are you baking?
    :)

    love
    kj

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  19. lola, very very useful. thank you.

    i eat alot of fish and here in coastal new england fish is prominent. i never buy a whole fish though and lately i'm finding i can no longer subject fresh lobsters to boiling water. :(

    in my town there is still a very small local fish market, always fresh. shrimp, scallops, cod, founder, salmon, tuna, swordfish. but already ready for me. not bones, no skin.

    by the way: TSUP! and ♥ to you this holiday season. are you cooking up a storm? are you baking?
    :)

    love
    kj

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  20. The only one of these I had heard before was the part about the eyes needing to be shiny and look more-or-less alive. Glad to have more knowledge. Thanks!

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  21. KJ~
    Taking a brief cooking hiatus between Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season... But currently focusing on baking different kinds of bread. I love baking bread!

    ~~~

    Jim~
    Thank *you* for your visit. "Shiny eyes" is the best known freshness indicator, but the other factors listed here are good barometers too.

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  22. Great post! I love fish but I'm always worried about them being old so this is all good to know!

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  23. Lazio Explorer~
    Thanks for your visit and comment! There are 2 big seafood-related fears: its freshness and being relaxed cooking it. Here you can find myth-breakers and solutions to both!

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