Yesterday morning we were in Livorno, about 90 minutes from Florence. Dinner at the Colonnade (the less formal dining room with lots of outdoor tables) that night was going to be a Tuscan Market Dinner, and the ships’s executive chef, Franck Sollazzo, was going shopping with 20 of his hungry customers, two of whom were us. Although the chef is French, his family is Italian and they shopped at the Livorno market when he was a kid. He knew what he was doing.
I thought, frankly, that the thing would be a bit of window dressing, just for show, but that the ship’s food (for 450 guests over four restaurants) would arrive from commercial suppliers. Some of that is probably true, but this shopping trip was the real deal — Chef was on a mission, trailed by his sous chef with a heavy duty trolley to carry his very substantial purchases.
The market was a great one — partly indoors under cover and partly out. We started with fish — Chef bought kilos of mussels and huge handfuls of octopi and cuttlefish. He searched for sardines, bought trays of fresh anchovies, filleted by hand by fishmongers whose fingers knew what they were doing so well they didn’t even need to look. And for fish soup, a Livorno specialty (a specialty all over the Mediterranean, actually) he bought up lots of tiny fish — scorpion fish, St. Pierre, and other little bony fish, sold in bulk to make the broth. I don’t think I am likely to get my hands on these little guys myself, but if any of you should find yourself making Italian fish soup, I have it on authority that it is the scorpion fish that are truly crucial to the finished product!
As we shopped (or as he shopped and we trailed along like ducklings) Chef told us that some of the fish was local, and some (like the shrimp) farmed and imported. I asked how he could tell and he laughed and said, he just knew because he was from here and he knew what lived in these waters. Handy knowledge, but hard to share. He bought bottles and bottles of olive oil — said he prefers Italian and French to Spanish because the olives are tinier but have more oil which is soft and fruity. Larger olives are more bitter. I wondered how he knew and he said the best oil was the stuff they press from the olives at his house in France, so I guess maybe he knows what he’s talking about. 🙂
I also asked (I know, big mouth, always with her hand in the air) how he knew what he was shopping for. He said he had the menu planned and knew what he was looking for, but he was also open to seeing what was fresh and available. He laughed and said “I don’t think about you I think about me. If I think about all of you I am lost. I cook what I love and I just hope that you love it too.” So I asked what he loves and he said he was already thinking about what he would have for dinner that night — “some sautéed calamari, olives and tomatoes after service. Very simple. When the ingredients are great it can’t go wrong.”
I guess when you are spending as much money as he was, you get some leverage with the market vendors — we got to sample olives and tomatoes, ripe, ripe peaches and apricots. And the poor guy behind us got more and more loaded up with stuff. When they left to go back to the ship, Jerry and I kept shopping — got some of those peaches and the hugest, most amazing (and most expensive!!!) cherries I have ever seen, as well as a wedge of Parmesan and some olives and some grilled, marinated eggplant. We took it all back to the ship and ordered lunch in the suite — Jer got a burger and fries (both of which they do beautifully) and I ordered spaghetti with olive oil. Then I chopped up the eggplant and tossed it with the pasta, and scattered it with fat green olives and crumbled up the Parmesan over the top. Yum, yum, yum. Reminded me of the time we were in Torino with Dave and Krissy and Ronnie and Evan and we bought a white truffle at the truffle market, then ordered buttered pasta from room service and shaved the truffle over the top. Fun memory, and it made me smile. (Well, I was already smiling, but it made me smile more.)
So last night we went to the Colonnade for dinner and there were the mussels, sautéed with garlic and wine and a drop dead amazing Livorno Fish soup. The tomatoes were there, sliced and layered with mozzarella. This morning there were ripe peaches for breakfast and lunch today in the Colonnade was a seafood theme — Jer had more mussels and a seafood dish full of octopus sautéed on the spot with garlic and tomatoes.
Since our 20 day cruise is actually two 10 day cruises linked together (one ends tomorrow and the next starts) we get another shopping with the chef day — this one in Sete, France, next week. Can. Not. Wait. 🙂