Palamita sott’olio (Bonito preserved in oil)

I must admit that I am one to succumb to an impulse buy every now and then. Well, actually, almost all my produce shopping at the market is an impulse, except for when I actually plan for a recipe and need certain ingredients. Whatever looks good or cheap or particularly interesting is what ends up in my basket – perhaps it’s a box of figs, jammy, over ripe and going for next to nothing or a bunch of herbs that I don’t normally see, like wild fennel tops that you can smell from a few stalls away.

palamita - bonito preserved in oil

This time it happened to be whole bonito. Glistening in their dress of silver stripes like shiny armour, their bright eyes so clear and fresh they looked like they might wink at you – I couldn’t resist, also because they were in season and dead cheap. I bought one and brought it home. It smelled like salty waves from the sea.

I didn’t have a particular dish in mind at first, that’s the problem with impulse buying. The ideas come after. I knew Marco, my husband, would have a thing or two he would want to do with it. I knew he’d think of something that brought back a little nostalgia of home. For me, bonito, or palamita means the Tuscan coast – rocky, with the hazy outline of some little islands here and there and umbrella pines that grow leaning with the wind. It’s a reminder of the time we always spend here at the family beach house and the visits to places like the seaside village of San Vincenzo, where they celebrate bonito in an annual food festival, la festa della palamita

Tuscan coast - argentariopalamita - bonito preserved in oil

Bonito is a much-appreciated fish in the area with flesh rather similar to tuna, but is considerably cheaper. It’s related to the mackerel, which, along with other oily fish like sardines, are known collectively as pesce azzuro in italian – they are not only delicious but good for you.

We decided to do a simple preparation for bonito, but one that is excellent for keeping on hand and making a variety of other things with. Palamita sott’olio. It’s essentially tinned tuna but better. More elegant, more tender and flavourful. The fish is simply chopped into steaks and boiled in a 20% salt solution. The bones are removed and the chunks of flesh are bottled with some bay leaves and pepper for flavour, then topped up with oil to preserve it. It’s better after it’s had a few weeks to settle, but you may not be able to resist that long.

It makes a wonderfully quick dinner as it’s all ready to go. My favourite way to have this is in a simple, impromptu salad of white cannellini beans and thinly sliced raw red onion, dressed in some red wine vinegar and olive oil. But it’s great crumbled into some sauce made of fresh tomatoes and basil for pasta or on a panino with boiled eggs and parsley.

palamita - bonito preserved in oil Tuscan coast - porto ercole palamita - bonito preserved in oil

Palamita sott’olio Bonito preserved in oil

This recipe is adapted from Zuppe e Stornelli, a book of the cuisine of Elba Island, part of Tuscany’s archipelago. You could also add some slices of fresh chilli if you like it a little hot.

  • 1 kg bonito, interior cleaned
  • vinegar (such as white wine vinegar or distilled vinegar)
  • 600 grams of rock salt
  • vegetable oil to cover
  • 3-4 dried bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon whole dried black peppercorns

Remove the head and tail of the bonito and chop into thick steaks, about 5-6cm thick, bone and skin in tact. Rinse the fish with vinegar and then rinse with water. Place the steaks in a bowl of cold water for 2-3 hours, renewing the water once or twice.

Place 3 litres of water in a large saucepan with the salt and bring to a simmer. Drain the fish and add to the saucepan and cook, covered, for about 1 1/2-2 hours.

When cooked through, drain and pat the bonito steaks dry. When cool enough to handle, break apart the bonito with fingers into a few smaller sections, removing the central bone and skin as you go. Wrap the fish pieces in a clean tea towel (or in layers of paper towel) to drain it further and chill in the fridge for several hours.

Place the chilled bonito in jars (this amount needed 2 jars; the one pictured here is a lovely Weck canning jar of 19.6 oz or 1/2 litre volume capacity) with some peppercorn and bay leaves. Cover with oil, making sure all the fish is entirely covered. Seal the jar and store in a cool, dark place (I keep mine in the fridge). This is best about a month after bottling. If you can wait that long.

Just in case you’re wondering, these photographs of this beautiful seaside were taken at Argentario in the southernmost part of Tuscany. It looks out over the island of Giglio and is a fair way further south than Elba. A gorgeous part of the world. Tuscan coast - porto ercole


  1. PolaM says:

    I had no idea you could actually do this at home! Will have to try!

    • ivan says:

      wonderful recipe, although I am a bit concerned about botulism. Is the recipe and process absolutely proved to avoid chlostridium? thank you

  2. I adore preserved fish, well, fish preserved in oil anyway, I’ve heard of fish preserved by fermentation which reeks very vile but is supposed to be very good for you. That doesn’t sound very appealing and as much as I am intrigued by it, I am not sure I would make a sarnie with it!
    I’m an impuls buyer too when it comes to veggies, how can you make a list when you don’t know what’s going to be good and what not eh! ;-))

  3. Everything about your words, inspiration & photographs is simply beautiful. You took me on a journey Emiko, a glorious one. Love Posie

  4. Marian says:

    Generally fish cooks quite quickly. Any idea why it needs to cook for 11/2 – 2 hours? Wondering if it dried it out, although it does not look dry in the photo.
    Thanks for posting this.

    • Emiko says:

      The long cooking time is all part of the curing process — the fish is cooking in a saline solution that needs to penetrate the fish fully to help make it last long. The result is anything but dry! This is the most tender, soft fish, quite different even to tinned tuna.

  5. I got the jars I got the jars! :)) They are occupied by rhubarb pickling away at this very moment, but I am looking forward to trying this. Is there any other fish besides bonito you would use for this? xx

  6. Gregor says:

    I was looking for the original Bonito El Norte recipe and stumbled upon your Palamita sott’olio recipe, which I liked a lot.
    On the local market here in Madrid I found fresh Bonito which arrived this morning from Vizcaya and decided to get 3kg of the fish…

    I will mix your recipe with an old Spanish one, which adds also an onion, garlic and bay leaves (and salt of course) already while cooking the Bonito.

    I will try out filling one jar with Chilli 🙂

    Thanks Emiko for the inspiration.

    • Emiko Davies says:

      That sounds delicious. Make sure you don’t cut it into too small pieces as the amount of salt here is meant for very large (thick) pieces and the smaller ones will be a bit too salty otherwise. Hope you like it!

  7. rachida mach says:

    Umm mmm !!! Yummy …THANK YOU FOR SHARING …
    i remember when some 24 yrs ago, a late cousin of mine offered some mackerel prepared in such manner,… i was pregnant in my first months,… the fish was SOOO YUMMY that i couldn’t resist eating a whole jar all alone 😉 …
    By the way, can we prepare this recipe with tuna?

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