Spaghetti with sardines, fennel and pinenuts – a visit to beautiful Treviso

On my last trip to Italy I enjoyed several days in the beautiful town of Treviso, not far from Venezia. Treviso has its own tiny canal system, a multitude of arches lining its narrow streets and a surprising array of markets. It is also the capital town of the province where my mother Livia was born.

canale trevisocanale bw

I travelled there with my daughter and we stayed in a delightful medieval Bed and Breakfast called Palazzo Raspanti, which is within the old city walls. The palazzo is totally renovated with a huge heavy wooden door leading to a high ceiling moody foyer that would make a perfect art gallery.

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the perfect terrace treviso

Our chatty host Simone was charming and invited us to go salsa dancing with him and his wife. He gave us some tips on what to visit in Treviso and knowing my interest in food, highly recommended a number of street markets, which are held on most days of the week.

mercato di fruttasignore eleganti bw

The markets are quite diverse, some with only fruit and vegetables and others selling a huge array of clothing and plants. The locals get around on bicycles rather than cars and the older ladies were immaculately dressed as only italians can be, practising the art of fare la bella figura (making sure you make a good impression).

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Local hard cheeses such as asiago and Piave filled the stalls. I found one cheese that was imbriago de vin (drunk with wine) which was written on a sign in the local dialect – it sounded intriguing! Being summer when we visited, the colourful fruit and flowers made strolling through the streets a visual feast.

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Simone highly recommended we visit La Pescheria, which is a fish market found on a tiny island on the Canale Cagnan in the center of town. Unfortunately we visited on a day that it was closed – well there was only one fishmonger there. So there wasn’t a lot of fish, but what was there was exquisitely fresh – squid, cuttlefish, clams and my favorite sardines.

canale cagnan

It can make me sad to visit fish markets when I am traveling – there is so much fish I want to buy and cook! But I have to be happy with taking photos and imagining what delicious meals I could be making.

la pescheria

At home in Melbourne I am always in the lookout for sardines at the Victoria Market. I buy them wherever I can. A few years back when I was practicing to get into Masterchef, I asked my father to show me how he cleaned different types of fish. I remember him when I was growing up cleaning fish in the large laundry tub and presenting mamma with a plate of cleaned cuttle fish, snapper or sardines. These are the fish he taught me how to clean or fillet, which I still do occasionally though I love finding sardines already filleted as it cuts down the preparation time.

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As a tribute to the wonderful Pescheria in Treviso, I am sharing a delicious way of making sardines with pasta. The recipe is Sicilian, though I have seen a version in Venezia a few years ago.

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It contains balancing elements, making it salty, sweet, acidic and crunchy at the same time – sardines, sultanas soaked in wine, fennel, grated lemon rind and fresh breadcrumbs. I love to use bucatini, which is a hollow spaghetti, which seems to pick up more of the sauce. It is a summery dish, delicious with a refreshing glass of chilled rose’.

sardine pasta two plates

Bucatini with sardines, fennel and pine nuts*
Serves 4
1/3 cup sultanas, soaked in 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon saffron stamens
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and bruised
1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 head baby fennel
1 onion, finely diced
1 cup fennel fronds
1 fresh chilli, chopped
12 sardines, filleted
1 lemon zest
375g bucatini or spaghetti

Soak the sultanas in white wine (you can use water instead) and set aside. Soak the saffron in a little bit of water and set aside. Heat the garlic with a splash of olive oil in a large frypan. When it starts to become fragrant, add the breadcrumbs and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently until they become golden. Place them in a bowl and discard the garlic.

In the same pan, place the rest of the olive oil, half the fennel fronds and the onion and cook until softened, about 8 to 10 minutes on low heat. Whilst you are doing this, heat a large pot of salted water in which you will cook the pasta. Add the grossly chopped head of fennel to the water. When it is boiling, add the pasta and cook for the required time according to the instructions on the packet. When you have about 5 minutes to go before the pasta is ready, add the sultanas with wine, saffron, chilli, pine nuts and the sardine fillets and then turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir the sauce with a wooden spoon fairly regularly and after about 3 minutes, remove from the heat.

Drain the pasta and discard the fennel pieces. Add the drained spaghetti to the frypan with the sauce. Stir in the breadcrumbs. Place on heated individual plates. Scattering the remaining fennel fronds and lemon zest and drizzle on some extra virgin oilve oil to serve. Buon appetito!

*Adapted from Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion

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