Read the first installment, Pisa Surprise here on Katy’s Table.
Parmesan Ice Creams with Caramelised Onions arrives at my table. Two things I love – cheese and ice cream, brought together on my plate in a little restaurant in the heart of Tuscany. Ice Cream perhaps was a poor translation, it comes across as more of a creamy, light chilled Parmesan mousse. The salty creaminess of the cheese matches the sweet sharpness of the onions beautifully. The mousse has an amazing texture: smooth and light. Maybe I’m imagining it but I swear I can actually feel those effervescent parmesan crystals melt in my mouth. There is such a dramatic contrast between the original cheese and this ethereal mousse, and yet the essential flavour remains the same. Big ups to Heston. This is amazing.
In between courses I scribble creatively (creepily?) on my place mat notes on the Parmesan Ice Cream, to which I am referring to now. There is just enough time to order another glass of hot-blooded red wine and to stare inappropriately at the other patrons (am I developing a problem here?).
In the last post I mentioned a book, Cod by Mark Kurlansky. I had started by reading Salt, by the same author, and I became fascinated with this one ingredient and how essential it was to any pre-refrigeration civilisation. A large part of the book talks about Cod, which as a home-grown South African Girl, I am completely unfamiliar with. In Kurlasky’s follow up book, he concentrated entirely on Cod and the history and commerce surrounding this wonderful resource, which now unfortunately is very nearly exhausted. There are sincere fears that the Cod stocks of the North Atlantic have been depleted to a point from which the cod population may never recover. And after reading about cod, and how it has been a central part of European cuisine for almost 500 years, I was dying to try this mysterious and rare dish. I was feeling a little guilty I admit, now with the knowledge that I was seeking out a dish that is all but extinct. So when I saw Baccala (or Bacalao in Spain) – salted cod, on the menu at La Grotta I just knew I had to try it! Could this be the last time I have the opportunity to try Baccala alla Toscana?
Main course arrives – Steamed Cod with sautéed vegetables. It is a simple dish, the white fish flesh gleaming with olive oil, almost angelic with its intense whiteness. The fish is dense, and surprisingly rich which I find strange considering that cod is almost a fat-free protein (thanks Kurlansky for the nerd facts). Due to its almost complete lack of fat cod, when dried and salted, has an infinite shelf life as there are no fats or oils to turn rancid. The salted fish fillet is first soaked and rinsed, and then prepared according to local recipes all along the Atlantic and Mediterranean European coastlines. Almost never is cod prepared fresh, the main exception being in English fish and chip shops. The result is a flavour that is salty sea water freshness, with a beautiful dense, creamy mouth feel. This, if ever there was such a thing, is not a “fishy fish”. The crisp vegetables taste fresh and surprisingly intense, considering they are nothing more than some carrots and zucchini.
For dessert I settle on a Torta di Ricotta di Montana. A chilled light ricotta mousse cheese cake; unfortunately it is cheapen by an overindulgence in generic chocolate sauce, but it pulls through with a creamy but not heavy texture.
La Grotta, Pisa was a lucky find. And a refreshing reminder that true hospitality and creativity can be found around the very next corner, if only you’re brave enough to head out and seek it out.
La Grotta Osteria, Pisa, Italy Website
Cod by Mark Kurlansky Website