From our Sea + fish4tomorrow
As you can tell from the unusual bit up top, today’s column doesn’t faithfully follow my usual path. It does not cover a specific restaurant that’s at a fixed (or mobile) location. There’s more that’s unusual, and early disclosure is important here – I know the people behind this movement.
I don’t feel bad about this for two reasons. While I knew the guys socially, I didn’t know they were behind ‘From our Sea’ until after I’d eaten my fill and paid for my meal. The other reason is that I haven’t come across such a tasty good cause for quite a while so I ought to share it with you. Sharing is caring, after all.
Sometimes the most wonderful meals are spontaneous, unplanned, or both. It started with a colleague of mine asking if I’d replace him for lunch that he’d booked but couldn’t attend. He was meeting a close friend of mine so that was an easy yes. I had to check my calendar and asked when this lunch was happening and he gave me that look that usually means ‘now’. Well, I had an hour.
But this is what friends are for. If there is a booking for a seven-course lunch with a good friend and someone needs to step in, I can be counted on. Food would be served at the beautifully tidied-up Camarata in Valletta and it was prepared by David Darmanin and Nicole Pisani.
What I asked myself on the way was what are these two wonderful chefs doing back on home turf when they’ve both abandoned us in favour of a much larger island that has a queen on its currency? And having them in the same kitchen sounded like quite the treat.
It was when I arrived that I figured out what was going on. This was a pop-up event for the From our Sea collective, a couple of determined, young men who, as part of the Fish4tomorrow NGO, organise regular meals that make use of fish that have been caught around Malta.
The menu on the table sounded enticing. Five fish courses followed by two desserts is just what the doctor had ordered for my Friday afternoon. We sat in the hot sun, deep in the bowels of our capital city, as course after course headed our way at a leisurely pace. This was the first event held at lunchtime, and I can see why. Unless planned, it’s not every day that most can dedicate a couple of hours to lunch.
We started with grilled sardines in agrodolce, the Sicilian version of a sweet and sour sauce, which varies widely but inevitably includes a sweet and acid source to give a tangy ripeness to dishes. As I ate the grilled sardine fillet I wondered why we don’t eat more of this beautifully fatty fish.
Hot on its heels, or rather its tail fin, came an unbelievably delicate take on the plamtu, with raw broad beans (ful) and fresh ġbejna. The fish itself was beautifully succulent, and freshly foraged herbs gave it perfumed, floral overtones. The addition of chunks of fresh ġbejna is an unusually clever touch, particularly for the texture that the soft cheeselet contributes to the dish.
Next up was another nifty concoction that we’re not accustomed to. A lasagna with vopi, ricotta, and peas. For the third time in a row I wondered why we don’t eat more of this kind of food – dishes that put inventiveness to work to achieve simplicity and flavour with seasonal ingredients. The pasta was just perfect and, as unlikely as it may sound, the fish and ricotta combination was sensational. Fresh peas added a sweet punctuation to the dish.
Next was an ‘arborio ghiotta with serran and fresh fennel’. Now a ghiotta is not quite a broth and neither is it a stew, and I had no idea what was headed our way. This turned out to be a slightly thick risotto that tasted like an aljotta. The last time I’d tasted such humility and balance in an aljotta was at David’s hands when he ran Taverna Sugu. The time before that was straight out my grandmother’s kitchen. So I just sat there in silence, purposefully taking in every forkful and hoping the bowl had no bottom.
Rounding off the fish dishes was a curious take on the sawrell, taming the intense flavour of the fish with the sharpness of shredded, wild garlic and a slightly sweet hint of tamarind. This involved a little dexterity to coax cutlery into a merry dance that dodged the tiny bones. But as with the complicated choreography of mating porcupines, there is always a proportionately rewarding end to the affair.
Desserts came in the form of two little cannoli, one with lemon curd and dark chocolate and the other with strawberry curd and candied lime and white chocolate. This is the only time I could possibly find a flaw in the meal. The shells had lost a tiny bit of their crunch, possibly having been filled a little earlier to keep up with the sheer volume of food that was being proposed. The filling of each was exceptional though, so I ended the meal on a very happy note.
Not that this didn’t leave me wondering whether there is a way to include fish with the dessert course. This might sound odd to some but one must be brave and ready to venture outside the boredom of one’s comfort zone if our lives are to contain any excitement. I’m giving mulett bottarga and dark chocolate a try the next time I get my hands on the ingredients, and if it tastes terrible I’ll just chalk it up to experience.
At the end of the meal I took one of the guys responsible for putting all this together aside and had a little chat. I was curious to know where it all started and what they had in mind. He told me that they began with an acute awareness of the issue with unsustainable fishing practices around the world and then decided to concentrate on our own sea as a start.
To do so they thought the best way would be to use sustainably caught fish as the basis for a meal. Doing good, after all, is not the avoidance of causing harm but actively trying to make the world a slightly better place.
Early on, however, they took a startlingly smart decision. They would not communicate this endeavour as one that is about sustainability, for two reasons.
The first is that this would only attract those who are already making conscious decisions to eat properly and this would be creating an audience that was essentially an echo chamber.
The second is that this could overshadow the fact that they also wanted to create outstanding food that appeals to those who love dining out, who are eager for an unusual experience, and who want excellent food prepared by our best chefs.
They’ve succeeded on both counts. They’ve understood that we can’t possibly sustain the way we eat for much longer and have turned to shoal fish that is in season as their only source of fish. This led them to fish that are for some reason unfashionable. Mackerel and sardines, for instance, are wonderful to eat yet they were traditionally regarded as fish for the poor. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as lunch at Camarata at the hands of two wonderful chefs amply proved.
The way they go about it is brave. They pick a restaurant and a chef (or a team) and provide them with their quick fish list, a list of fish rated by sustainability. Chefs take this seriously so the menu is usually formulated the night before, based on the freshest catch. David and Nicole even foraged for fresh herbs to keep the whole meal as seasonal and responsible as possible, and the result was memorable.
So look them up. Events are not as frequent at this time of the year as they are when fishing for shoal fish isn’t hampered by dodgy weather. Meals are normally separated by about a month and are different by design. And if you’re lucky to score a seat, be prepared for a treat with the unusual upside that our seas have been respected in the process.
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