Let me give you a little quiz. If someone showed you an unlabeled jar containing a relish of tiny fishes fermented in salt and chilies and asked you to guess where it came from, what would you say?
... Mexico maybe?
Wrong. Welcome to Calabria, Italy's chiliehead region. It is sometimes surprising for foreigners to find out how sparingly chili is used in Italian cuisine. Yet in Italy even dishes when this fiery ingredient comes into play, the amounts are almost homeopathic for those used to spicy cuisines. Until you get to Calabria that is.
Though it would be unfair to limit Calabrian cuisine to spicy heat -it has much more to offer, like a fantastic array of mushroom dishes- chili pepper is nonetheless king here. If spice or main ingredient, the heat is often kicked up a huge bit once you cross the region's boundary.
Among the many chili specialties hailing from Calabria, by far the most original and controversial is rosamarina. Also known as sardella, it is sometimes called "the Caviar of Southern Italy", maybe because it is as much in danger of extinction as the real caviar. Diamante on the Tyrrhenian coast and Cirò on the Ionic coast are the two main production centers, each clearly claiming to make the best product.
Which brings me to another question: would you eat this? For those who appreciate it, rosamarina is a real delicacy. Yet for others it is an ecological disaster in a glass. Researching for this post I found out much more than I actually wanted to know. I love rosamarina after all and facing the naked truth was not too pleasant.
This fish preserve is made by letting neonata, a particular kind of tiny fishes, ferment with salt and occasionally fennel seeds. Once this stage is over the fish is then mixed with plenty of dried chili flakes to obtain cream like product mainly used as a spread for bread -though it can be used to make quick pastas like aglio e olio with a twist. Hot, yet bearable, its fish flavor reminds delicately of anchovies.
What makes this preserve so controversial is the use of neonata. Neonata, meaning newborn, is actually a general name embracing a number of fish species, but which can be divided into two big groups: bianchetti, the larvae of sardines and anchovies, and rossetti, a minute species called Aphia minuta. Both are traditionally consumed in a number of Italian regions: in Liguria as minestra di gianchetti (bianchetti soup), as frittelle di neonata, neonata pancakes, throughout Southern Italy and last but not least on pizza coi cicinielli, pizza with neonata, a topping going back to the pre-tomato times. And in rosamarina clearly.
The real problem is that it is very hard to distinguish the two kinds of neonata if you do not know what to look for, and more often than not sellers and customers simply do not bother. And while eating rossetti is OK (I guess) the same does not hold true for bianchetti. It has been calculated that a kilo of these tiny baby blue fish could become up to 150 kg of adult sardines and anchovies. Given the progressive and dramatic impoverishment of the Mediterranean sea, it is clear how this is not only an ecological suicide but also a commercial one, especially since neonata does not fetch prices that are 150-times higher than sardines or anchovies.
There are further problems, which have more to do with Italy's poor ecological policies than else. Officially the fishing season for neonata is limited to a specific short time in winter, which should not hit the stocks of baby sardines and anchovies too hard. Unfortunately the fishing season is in practice much longer than what officially claimed, partially because of extensions given by port authorities bowing under the interests of the fishers, but also because of a certain amount of lack of control. In the past decades the use of technologies like sonar have made the situation even more dramatic, increasing the catch per boat.
Those who see no wrong in eating neonata, often play the "traditions" card to defend their opinion. They point out that these fishes have been part of the diet of Italy's coastline since centuries, without any major effect on fish populations and consider the pessimistic predictions of many experts as doom and gloom. Furthermore closing down neonata fishing would hit the meager profits or even the jobs of the few surviving Southern Italian fishermen. And then there are those who are well aware of the risks of eating neonata, but simply like it too much to resist... damned foodies!
While I can understand the reasons and fears behind these points I cannot help to ask myself what the consequences of a continued neonata fishing might hold. Would it be better to stop this kind of activity for a few years, with the hope of a brighter future in a few years time or fish "to death" reducing Italian anchovy and sardine stocks to near extinction? Better an egg today or a chicken tomorrow? For me it's bye bye to this delicious tiny fishes... at least until the situation gets better. But you can bet, as soon as that happens I'll be one of the first in line at the fishmonger's desk.