Trolling for Fishies on the Amalfi Coast
James Hathaway is the Communications and Conservation Manager at the Orvis Company, which makes fly-fishing rods. As some of you may remember, I brought 6/7ths of an Orvis fly-fishing rod with me to Mongolia. My plan was to bring all seven sevenths of the rod, but something went greivously wrong during the packing phase of the trip and the end result was that I found myself standing on the bank of a Mongolian River with an incomplete-and useless-fishing rod.
James Hathaway read that post and, using considerable influence and resources available to him as a higher-up at Orvis, he offered to send me a new one. My response to James: "By all means. Send one immediately." I have long believed that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and that the trick to enjoying them is to eat quickly. As promised, James sent me the rod. In Italy, I found the opportunity to use it.
I wasn't in just any part of Italy. I was sea kayaking what some consider to be the finest stretch of coastline in the world: The Amalfi Coast . A lot of people consider it to be the finest stretch of coastline in the world. So many, in fact, that that they've managed to put a hotel on every non-vertical piece of land with an ocean view. The result is that if you're not sacked out on a sun chair, the Amalfi Coast is a stressful--though still beautiful-place to be. The roads are snarled with cars and tour buses from France and Germany, all honking more than they ought to, and the streets are choked with picture-takers and window shoppers. Even the sun chairs are not without their problems--you have to get up and turn them every 20 minutes to ensure direct exposure to the sun.
Amalfi Coast...you can't get sick of the view
Federico talks with a fisherman
Thus, we opted for the kayak. By we I mean myself and my guide, Federico Ferendeles, who, like so many Italians, is both good humored and fun-loving, but unlike so many Italians, loves sea kayaking. (Italy may be one seriously coastal country, but sea kayaking sits on the outer fringes compared to such mainstream activities as drinking coffee and looking cool.) Today's goal: to kayak from the town of Amalfi to the much smaller and quieter town of Praiano. Not a huge distance to paddle, but time was against us. We'd wasted most of the day being, well, tourists. The morning, we ambled around Ravello, and then spent a good chunk of the afternoon in Amalfi, stopping to see the church, wandering the winding tunnel-like streets and checking out an 11th-century arsenal. (The weapons were long gone, unfortunately.)
But now it was time to kayak, and leaving Amalfi by kayak is far easier than leaving by car. We walked down to the beach and launched. After thirty seconds of paddling, the tourist din was barely audible. The view ahead was just coastline and seawater.
Here, I pulled out the fishing rod. I let out line and waited. For an awfully long time--too long, if you ask me--nothing happened. So little happened that I forgot about the fishing rod. We paddled, we talked, we paddled more. Federico and I rounded a point marked by the crumbling remains of and an old lighthouse or fort staring out at the sea. In the next bay, a cave. Boats were pulling in, unloading tourists to step into the cave and marvel. Federico and I decided to stop in for a visit. We pointed our kayaks towards the cave and paddled. That's when the fish hit.
The joy of a fish strike is that there is no warning. You go from zero to thrilled in a tenth of a second, maybe less. For the preceding hour, we listened to nothing other than the sounds of the water--the dip of the paddles, the hull of the kayak patted by the surf, the grumble of tour boats in the distance. Now there was a new sound: the whiz of the reel giving off line.
By the time I got the rod in my hand, 200 feet had spooled out. I tightened the drag, lifted the rod tip high and pulled the fish towards the boat. The fight started big, but the fish tired quickly. I reeled in line, keeping tension all the while. In the water to my left, there was a flash, a mouth, then a slivery-blue fish in my hand. Federico looked at it and said, "Ahh, sgombro."
Sgombro is the Italian word for mackerel, which do not have the best reputation. The flesh is dark and oily, and has a tendency to go rancid in a hurry and thus a lot of mackerel tastes fishy to the point of disgusting. But the lowly mackerel is closely related to a far less lowly member of the fish world: the tuna. And if you eat a mackerel when it's fresh--before its oils have had a chance to rancidify--the family resemblance becomes much clearer.
Mackerel flesh...looks tuna-like. But how does it taste?
Nicoletta prepares my catch
Served with a carafe of white wine
Federico and I paddled fast for the nearest town, called Fiore. You can't get to Fiore by car. At the very least, you're due for a long walk down a set of stairs because Fiore sits in a split in the rocks, nestled in a little waterside canyon, where a tiny river trickles through and empties into the Mediterranean. There are no stairs to descend when you approach by kayak. You paddle through the opening in the rocks, nose onto the beach, remove your lifejacket and it's only it's only a hundred foot walk to the restaurant.
There was still a big question: Would the restaurant cook the sgombro? It was past three, for one thing. The kitchen might not even be open. We walked across the patio, into the open doorway and were met by a good-looking Italian guy named Luigi. Luigi had good news: they would cook the fish. Of course they would cook the fish. His only request was that we order wine with the meal, which was kind of like asking if we would consider breathing with the meal.
The chef was Nicoletta, and she let me watch. She took the sgombro, cut off its head, emptied its guts into a garbage pale and hacked it into little fish steaks. Into a pan, she poured olive oil, threw in garlic, and applied heat. In went the sgombro. The recipe is called Aqua Pazza-"crazy water." After the fish was browned on both sides, Nicoletta dumped in some cherry tomatoes, then put the lid on the pan and let it cook.
Ten minutes later, Federico and I were eating our sgombro. To say it was delicious is to announce the obvious. We ate it with a carafe of white wine and a basket of fresh bread, and sat facing the sea, which was lapping up onto Fiore's little beach. Half an hour ago, the fish on our plate was still swimming and breathing. In five minutes, it would be in our stomachs. Like I said, the secret to a free lunch is eating quickly.