The first dish I made while working for Angelo Cabani in his highly acclaimed Locanda Miranda restaurant was his special Ligurian-style fish soup. What a magical culinary experience – being taught by a great chef who opened his restaurant in the same year I was born…and I’m not so young. It is also a recipe which continues to touch my inner soul in surprising ways.
Angelo’s soup recipe I made that day is actually a variation on the famous Cacciucco alla Livornese, a Tuscan town about an hour south of my Ligurian base. The classic cacciucco is more a stew than a soup. It is filled with various types of seafood and fish and flavored with an intense fish broth, tomato concentrate, onions, garlic and a bay leaf. The traditional presentation also includes a large chunk of garlic bread at the bottom of the soup bowl, which soaks up the tasty juices.
I ate cacciucco during my first visit to Livorno last year in a modern restaurant located in the canal zone of the city. I was excited to finally taste the soup which defines Livornese cooking and reminded me so much of my working days with Angelo. But I was very surprised when the ‘soup’ arrived served on a large plate and piled over a mound of couscous.
Couscous…what was the connection?
Several months later I found a reference to Cacciucco alla Livornese in Claudia Roden’s extraordinary Book of Jewish Food. Although she did not mention anything regarding couscous, I did get a clue in the very next recipe for another fish soup variation called Caldero, which has Spanish and Portuguese roots and is an Algerian specialty today. The Spanish version was served with rice, so it is not a big stretch to think the Algerian version may be served with couscous. The connection with the Livornese cacciucco comes from the history of Livorno.
The Grand Dukes of Tuscany decided to transform the small village around the Mastio di Matilde fortification into a city and mercantile port toward the end of the 16th century. A series of laws, known as the Leggi Livornine, were implemented and allowed merchants from any nation, regardless of their race, to settle in Livorno. The immigrants were promised a place to live and a shop where they could carry out their business. Incredibly, the laws also canceled all previous debts and made the new immigrants exempt from paying taxes and immune from any criminal conviction. The favorable laws quickly turned Livorno into an important cosmopolitan, multi-racial and multi-religious city. The proud residents of Livorno embraced the local fish soup, which was made using various local seafood and fish products brought together in a single pot, as wholly representative of what it meant to be Livornese – a mixture of diverse fish ingredients capable of coexisting in harmony.
I felt even more connected to this recipe after uncovering its history and connecting it to my own history.
I know the maiden name of my Jewish-Moroccan mother has roots tied to southern Portugal/Spain and I wonder… Did a distant relative pass through the port city of Livorno and enjoy a local fish soup?
I shared this story with my father a couple of months later and he revealed yet another surprise. Our family was to move from Casablanca to Livorno shortly before my birth, but the plans changed at the very last moment and I ended up arriving on this earth in Turkey rather than Livorno…and in the same year, my favorite chef and mentor opened his restaurant just north of Livorno and no doubt began serving his fish soup that very year.
Cacciucco alla Livornese
1 octopus, cleaned and separated (legs and head)
2,5 dl. red wine
4 medium-size seppie, cleaned and sliced about 1-cm thick (make sure the eyes and mouth are removed)
3 medium-size squid, cleaned and sliced about 1-cm thick
1 medium white onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 fresh bay leaves
2 dl. white wine
1 Tbl. tomato concentrate
5-6 medium tomatoes, puréed
1 tsp. chili flakes
1 tsp. paprika
5 dl. strong fish broth
4-6 fish filets (use sea bass, John Dory, hake or monkfish)
sea salt, pepper and chopped parsley
Begin by cooking the octopus. Place the octopus in a large pot and cover completely with water. Add the bay leaf and red wine. Bring the water to a slow boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot and cook the octopus for 45-60 minutes in simmering water. Skim any foam that rises to the top after about 10 minutes. The octopus should be relatively soft and easy to slice with a knife. When finished, remove all of the octopus to a plate and cool slightly. Meanwhile, heat a medium-sized wide pan over medium-high heat. Add about 2 Tbl. of olive oil, chopped onions and whole garlic to the hot oil. Reduce the temperature to medium, add the bay leaves and cook the mixture until the onions soften but do not brown. Add all of the prepared seppie and squid, then toss well to mix. Cook uncovered for 5-7 minutes, making sure to stir often so the onions do not burn. Add the white wine and tomato concentrate, then stir well to incorporate. Add the tomato purée, fish broth and spices. Season with sea salt and cook over medium heat for about one hour. The seafood should be soft to the bite and the liquid mixture should reduce to a very thick liquid. Rinse the octopus to remove any slime from cooking, then slice into 2-cm thick pieces and add them to the stew. Add the fish filets and continue to cook for another 10 minutes. If the sauce seems a bit too thin, turn up the heat to high and reduce the soup until thick. Remove from the heat, adjust the seasoning, add pepper and chopped parsley. Serve hot with garlic toast.