MARSAXLOKK: When chef James Schiavone stumbled upon the way Josh Niland was working with fish he knew he had to try to do something similar. The author of the book The Whole Fish Cookbook has changed the way many think about fish.
But he needed to convince his family, his parents and his brother who together run the Maltese fish restaurant Tartarun in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. His father in particular, who wakes up early each morning to source the fish from the fish market was not convinced that aging fish was something that could work. But he still approved of the purchase of a small fridge that would enable his son to dry-age fish and make fish charcuterie.
Decisions at Tartarun, in particular relating to investments at this family-run restaurant that has been open for more than 10 years in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, Malta are taken by the whole family.
The motto at the restaurant, but also pretty much everywhere else on the island is that the fresher the fish the better it is.
James said he had been following the work of Niland and it was difficult to understand how aging fish could work. “I had tried to age fish in our cold room but there was too much humidity so it did not work. “It was difficult, counter intuitive particularly because the way fish is kept as fresh as possible in Malta is in ice,” James told Food and Wine Gazette about his project to start curing and making fish charcuterie earlier this year.
At the end of January, the family purchased a dry-ageing fridge and since then James has been experimenting with curing, smoking and preserving fish. That decision, proved providential particularly when the COVID-19 pandemic hit unexpectedly. Ready with his first experiments, he was able to start selling fish charcuterie platters to the restaurant’s clients. “We did not want to sell cooked fish but we positioned ourselves differently by preparing dishes that could be served as an appetiser or starter. There was the fish charcuterie, tartare, a carpaccio and a number of pasta sauces like squid ink sauce (sugo nero) and octopus bolognese. This really helped us to build our relationship with our customers and when we reopened, clients started asking for our charcuterie,” he said.
James had been experimenting with different fish and with different cuts from the fish. He’s made tuna ham to tuna salami using lard, swordfish and wreckfish guanciale among others.
That swordfish guanciale which is cured with thyme, rosemary, coriander and fennel seeds and smoked before it is left to dry for a long time has given birth to a dish that James is particularly fond of, the carbonara of swordfish.
“This swordfish carbonara represents the change that has taken place in the restaurant. Everyone loves a good carbonara and this pasta dish is quite something,” he said. Having tried it, I of course, can confirm this.
James is not just making charcuterie. He is also preserving his own bottarga or fish roe and has also made a garum which he serves with oysters and uses in the kitchen. He sources anchovies and even works with other restaurants to pick up the guts which are needed to make the garum. “I ferment and dry them for eight months before I have a sauce that is considerably less salty less salty than the colatura di alici which you normally buy commercially.”
The young chef used to source certain Japanese ingredients from a speciality shop in Malta which has unfortunately closed because of COVID 19 with the owner moving to Belgium. Once such dish was the swordfish irazake (a traditional Japanese sauce made with sake, pickled plum and shaved dried bonito used in the Edo period before soy sauce).
This is a closely knit family though of course there are discussions in particular between the brothers. James, the chef has a vision which includes using hints of Japanese influence. “Japanese have a way of working with fish and the Japanese are a source of inspiration. Stephen, who with his mother is in charge of the front of house, has a preference for a more local approach.”
The restaurant can be found in Malta’s fishing village par excellence, Marsaxlokk. Famous for its fish market and for the colourful fishing boats called luzzu, the fishermen from this picturesque village supply a lot of the fish that is served at the restaurant.
James is hoping to soon start working with Malta’s most popular fish, the lampuka, also known as dolphin fish. “With the benefit of hindsight I could have experimented with lampuki in July when the fish was migrating into the Mediterranean. I was at the fish market with my father and we came across big fish but the fridge is now too small for my needs and we probably had to invest in a larger one. At the time it was full so I could not experiment.”
He said that for the moment, the lampuki are too small for dry aging and he will have to wait till around November to cure the fish. “I think that it will work very well because the results with the amberjack, a very similar fish, have been very good.”
“I’m learning that for charcuterie you need to have the fish when they are at their best. I’ve stopped working with tuna because it is at its best in May, June and July. It all depends on the fishermen and how they catch the fish. Even when it comes to salt, I am learning what works best and what doesn’t. I’m either using a plum salt from Japan or else a salt from the southernmost tip of Malta in Delimara,” he said.
For the time being everything is by trial and error. While Josh cures the fish without the skin, James has discovered that curing the fish with the skin on makes it less salty. So far results are extremely promising. He knows that changing habits of customers is not going to be easy. ‘Even in fish shops, people want to buy a whole fish and not an aged, cured or fileted fish. My cousins, who are fishermen from Marsaxlokk have come to try. They could not understand what I was doing at first. They said it could not be possible but were completely surprised.”
His father today is a convert.“My father, who was a sceptic, wanted to tell all his friends from Marsaxlokk and the people from the fish market to come and try it.”
James and the Schiavone family are on to something. Humbly, slowly, they have started work on a project that has the potential to revolutionise the way we look at a fish restaurant in Malta. A story definitely worth following.