Fish soup on Giglio Island

We spent a week in our favourite holiday place, the very special Giglio island, a tiny island in Southern Tuscany that can only be reached by ferry from Porto Santo Stefano. It’s the kind of place where time slows down and there is a simplicity to the rhythm of the days when you’re on an island like this so we really slow down when we are here (especially in a spot like Pardini’s Hermitage, where we stayed one year).

One of the things I love most about being in a place that isn’t home is tasting all the typical things or local produce that you don’t get anywhere else. Here on Giglio, that means things like fist sized jammy figs unlike any that I’ve tasted before, tiny, sweet yellow plums, apricots that taste like sunshine and tonnina, which is a unique salted tuna preparation. Once you desalt it, you combine it with some aromatics like bay leaf and chilli peppers and put it under oil – it is so delicious on sandwiches or in salad, much like how you’d use tinned tuna but turbo charged with flavour and with an almost stringy texture. For sweet tooths, there is also panficato, a figgy, chocolately dense bun of goodness, said to be related to the Sienese panforte.

The other thing I can’t resist here is the fresh seafood. The variety of fish and shellfish from the Tuscan archipelago is so wonderful and to get it so fresh from the passing fish trucks from the Porto Santo Stefano Fishing Co-op that park next to the beach at Campese (or up in the main piazza outside the walls of Castello or by the port) is such a treat. You’ll hear them coming with their megaphone announcing their arrival to beachgoers! There’s also a larger van on Fridays at the little weekly market in Campese.

One particular day, Marco went to see what was on offer. I had my eye on the baby calamari but the man in front of us took them all with one fell swoop. Marco ended up with a small scorpion fish, a bag full of mussels still with their beards and barnacles slinging to them, a bag of proper vongole veraci (you can tell them from other varieties that are often passed as vongole veraci as they have two siphons not one), and two big handfuls of beautiful pink prawns, all caught between here and Monte Argentario. A fish soup was in order.

This is more a broth with chunky fish pieces, rather than a thicker soup. Vital are thick pieces of bread toasted, then rubbed with a garlic clove, to dunk in the broth. Have extras. Also important is to have whole fish – it doesn’t have to be scorpion fish, any white fish will do (just don’t use oily fish like bonito, mackerel or sardines, they are my favourite fish in general but for soup they can be too bitter), and in fact in Italy they often have a basket of “pesce da zuppa” on offer, which are small fish that are really too small for any other preparations other than frying them whole or throwing them directly into a pot for soup. The whole fish adds so much more flavour to the dish than just fillet, add do the prawn shells. Don’t waste those either!

If you have any leftovers – which we did as this makes a really generous amount for four – you can pass the fish through a passatutto or a mouli, and reduce the broth a little or add a touch of tomato passata, then cook some short pasta in it for a satisfying, brothy pasta. If you need to pump it up a bit to spread it out, add a small tin of cooked cannellini beans or chickpeas.

Brodetto di pesce di Marco
Marco’s Giglio island fish soup

Note: Marco likes scorpion fish (scorfano), chopped into large pieces, which the fishmonger can do for you if you like. You could also use a handful of small whole fish, or opt for other white fish like tub gurnard (gallinella). The key is that they are whole, for more flavour, and white fish rather than oily fish. To clean the mussels, make sure to pull out their beards and give them a scrub if they are as fresh as Giglio island ones! Store bought are probably already cleaned and ready to go. For the clams, see this post on a very detailed description of how to purge clams properly.

For 4 people

400 g of whole fresh prawns
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and squashed with the side of a knife
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
Handful of chopped fresh parsley or basil (save the stalks)
500 g whole white fish such as scorpion fish or tub gurnard
2 glasses of white wine
1 small dried or fresh chilli
500 g mixed (cleaned) mussels and (purged) vongole clams
Juice of half a lemon
Toasted bread rubbed with a garlic clove for serving

Remove the heads and shells of the prawns and set the flesh aside. Place the heads and shells in a frying pan with the garlic and cook over medium heat until the shells are toasted and the garlic is lightly browned.

Add the tomatoes and the stalks of the herbs, and season with a good pinch of salt and some freshly cracked pepper and cook for 5 minutes, then add the white wine. Keep simmering and when reduced a little, add enough water to cover, add the chilli and let the broth cook for 20-30 minutes.

At this point you have two options. Option 1: pass the broth through a passatutto (mouli) for a smooth, slightly thicker (and less fiddly to eat) soup, or option 2: simply strain and remove only the shells and the head of the prawns, putting back the tomato and garlic in the pan (we chose the latter here).

Whichever you choose, now bring the broth back to a simmer, add the whole fish pieces and cook for 2 minutes, then the clam and mussels, cook until they open, which should only take a couple of minutes at most, and at the last minute add the prawns. Adjust for seasoning with salt, pepper if needed, and the lemon juice. Sprinkle over the fresh herbs.

Serve the soup with plenty of toasted bread rubbed with a clove of garlic. An absolutely stunning and delicious dish, which we washed down with a precious amber glass of ansonaca from Francesco Carfagna’s wild, Altura vineyard on the southern side of the island.

P.S. If you like fish soup, you might like to check out this unusual Tuscan soup, zuppa corsa.

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