The fish auction starts at 4pm. Thirty or so buyers from restaurants, shops and markets sit on one side of the large, cool room that smells like a rock pool. A conveyor belt divides the buyers from the workings of the room: two auctioneers and four men shifting hundreds of polystyrene boxes containing thousands of creatures. Fish that, minutes earlier, were unloaded from boats we watched return from the sea and dock in the canal that cuts through Fiumicino.
If you’ve flown into Fiumicino airport, just outside Rome, there’s a chance you’ve seen the canal as the plane curves to land on a runway near the coast. It was constructed under the emperor Claudius in 46 AD, part of Portus, a large artificial harbour for a growing city sustained by an empire. Built to supplement Ostia, ancient Rome’s original mouth on the sea, Portus would eventually supplant it and for 500 years provided a vital conduit and mighty port. While the new name of Fiumicino is seen on maps dated 1582, the urban and port redevelopment took place in the early 1800s and streets were named with purpose: Via del Tonno (tuna), Via dei Merluzzi (cod), Via dei Salmoni (salmon), Via delle Ostriche (oysters). Today, 25 trawlers and crews can fish designated areas, then dock along the ancient waterway to bring 100 different species to the daily asta that takes place in a side street near the canal mouth.
I have been to fish aste before, so I anticipate shouting. Here, though, it is relatively quiet, except for clicks as buyers press a tiny remote device. Boxes of fish are loaded on the conveyor belt, and also filmed so their contents appear on a screen; a fish shopping channel for those sitting near the door. An electronic indicator board details the type of fish, weight, cost, boat and fishing zone. The buyers click and claim anchovies, hake, mullet, red bandfish and even brighter red gurnard, mackerel-like palamita, kingfish, skate, cuttlefish, flying squid called totani, octopus, rose prawns and crabs.
My son is with me and chats away to a buyer called Maurizio who, in-between clicks, tells him the names of the fish, and also secures our future custom by giving Luca what looks like a tiny shark. Early the next morning we return to Fiumicino to find Maurizio, who runs one of the last remaining stalls in the covered market. It’s a vivid stall of pink, silver and white, scales and shells that reflect the light. There’s a momentary moral dilemma; a good thing, I think – a reminder to think twice and ask questions. We taste local pink prawns and buy wedge clams called telline, and a crab with amazing legs.
As a cook, eater and writer, I find the advice from the RSPCA and helpful, clear and sobering. Before cooking, crabs must be chilled or stunned into a sleep state (torpor) so they can be humanely killed by spiking with a pointed knife. The Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide recommendations are just as blunt, a good thing in regard to food. At the moment, Shetland brown crabs are a good choice.
Linguine with crab, lemon and herbs
A beautiful dish from a beautiful creature, so serve immediately.
Prep 10 min
Cook 10 min
300g white and brown crab meat, at room temperature
1 unwaxed lemon
2 heaped tbsp finely chopped parsley
A pinch of dried oregano
120ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red chilli, finely chopped
450g linguine or spaghetti
Bring a large pan of water to a boil, add salt, stir, then add the pasta. Start a timer and cook until al dente, which will depend on the brand, but about nine minutes.
While the pasta cooks, mix the crab meat, lemon zest and one tablespoon of its juice, herbs, olive oil and chilli together in a large, warm bowl (it’s important it is warm).
When the pasta is done, either drain or use a spider sieve or tongs to lift it into the bowl and toss gently with the other ingredients. Serve immediately.