Sunday, February 13, 2011


I am a fish fiend and one of my favourite fish dishes is Cacciucco, a speciality from Livorno, the largest port town in Tuscany (circa 1.5 hours from Florence by car). Cacciucco is basically a fish stew using about 6-7 different types of fish and crustaceans cooked with tomatoes, garlic, chilli, sage and some red wine and served over thick slices of Tuscan bread (not fresh but from the days previous) which has been toasted and rubbed with garlic. The type of fish to expect are squid, cuttle fish, prawns, shrimps, mussels and different kinds of white fish typically used in stews. Red wine, not white wine, is the accompanying beverage to wash it down.
The etymology of this marvellous dish’s name is a bit of a mystery. Some say that it could derive from the Turkish word kacuk meaning little pieces, referring to the numerous chunks of different fish used, or it could be from the Spanish word cachuco, the name of a particular fish subsequently used as a generic name for fish in general. These two possible explanations, although seemingly unconnected, being from two widely differing cultures, are both perfectly plausible when we consider the history and geographical positioning of Livorno (the English name of the city is Leghorn, which I have always found has a ridiculous ring to it). As many large port cities traditionally are a melting pot of cultures, so too was Livorno, but maybe even more so than others. With the silting of the port of Pisa, Livorno slightly further south, was created as the new  port for the Duchy of Tuscany under the rule of the Medici family. Bernardo Buontalenti, the favourite architect and inventor for Grand Duke Francesco de Medici in the second half of the 1500’s, was commissioned to draw up plans for the new city and fortress.
The city was largely finished and launched as the active and important port city that it is still today, under Francesco’s successor and brother, Grand Duke Ferdinando de Medici, who, recognising the need to increase the Duchy’s revenue, made the port a 'porto franco', a duty free haven, as well as offering amnesty to all religious and ethnic groups and thus attracting persecuted groups and minorities such Jews, Huguenots, Armenians, Greeks, and later Moriscos (Muslims converted to Catholicism) as well as others, who, bringing their trade contacts and expertise, helped to fill the coffers of Tuscany and breathe some new life into the ever declining power of Tuscany on the European scene.
After devouring a Cacciucco, it’s time for a 'Ponce' to round of the meal in true local Livornese fashion. Ponce derives from the English word, Punch, and is similar, but with a slight Italian adaptation of the ingredients. English Punch is a mixture of tea, sugar, cinnamon, lemon and distilled alcohol (generally a base of rum or rice wine) and Ponce replaces the tea with coffee (obviously!!).
I went to the trattoria Il Sottomarino tel: 0586 887 025 in the centre of Livorno, . I hear that 'Antica Venezia', also in the centre of Livorno, does a very good Cacciucco as well, which I plan to try next time.