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.