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A friend was describing a meal at one of his favourite restaurants, Da Fiore in Venice. In particular, he was waxing lyrical about scampi nostrani arrotolati e rosolati nel lardo di cinta senese: “three fat langoustines, as big as my thumb” – he gestured at this point to the plump fullness of his fleshiest digit – “wrapped in the sweetest lardo”– a finger is wound around the aforesaid thumb at this juncture – “then flashed over the plancha or under the grill or whatever you chef types do with it”– finger now pointed squarely in my direction – “you pop it in the mouth and it just erupts with the juiciest, piggiest, most saline explosion of flavour”.
A month or two later, I was in Venice, feet ensconced under a table at Da Fiore. (It is not easy to find Da Fiore on foot. It is easier, if punitively expensive, to get a water taxi.) Needless to say, I had to have the aforementioned scampi. The dish was every bit as good as it had been described – and as its €32 price tag would suggest. I was, however, a bit perplexed. Being a purist about langoustines, I like them plain, in the shell and with a little mayonnaise. I will also countenance a plate of langoustines that have been split in half and briefly shown a hot grill. Da Fiore’s Mara Martin, like most Italian chefs, is impeccably purist and virtually incapable of a wrong note and here she was wrapping a delicate piece of shellfish in pig fat and getting away with it.
The other mystery surrounds the langoustines themselves. They like cold water. They like to burrow deep into the sands of the Atlantic depths at latitudes beginning where Alex Salmond seeks to govern and then up almost into the Arctic Circle. And yet there they are swanning around the Adriatic and appearing in some profusion at the fish market just beyond the Rialto bridge. It is counterintuitive. The fact is that not everything adds up, however one computes it.
Wherever they come from, langoustines are deeply carnivorous but highly perishable. They are much at their best when delivered live and in boxes with little compartments so that they cannot damage each other. Again, in Venice they are chucked bucking and writhing on to a market trestle and devil take the hindmost. For my part, I shall continue to look on langoustines as a rather special treat to be reverenced with the unction of a little mayonnaise and let the Venetians do what they want with their scampi.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
There are such things as jumbo langoustines that come about six to the kilo but a reasonable count is about 16 to the kilo, enough for two or three people. The sad fact is that few people eat more than the tails of langoustines: the only consolation is that an excellent bisque can be made with the detritus.
- Bring a very large pan of water to a rolling boil with a good handful of salt. Once it is back to the boil, drop in the langoustines. Place a lid on the pan and as soon as it gets back to the boil, the langoustines will be cooked (pull back the tail and look at the meat through the thin membrane there: once it is white rather than translucent, they are cooked). Lift the langoustines out and let them cool at room temperature.
- Make a mayonnaise in the normal way: mix the egg yolks with fine salt, white pepper, a tablespoon of cold water, the mustard and the lemon juice. Whisk this energetically for a minute or two before adding the oil in a thin stream. Continue in this fashion, adding a few drops of cold water if the mayonnaise becomes too thick and threatens to separate. Taste and if necessary add more lemon juice – or a few drops of white wine vinegar if preferred.
- Serve the langoustines at room temperature with the mayonnaise and some wedges of lemon. The heads should be detached from the tails, the tails peeled and devoured with a squeeze of lemon and a little dab of mayonnaise. I then detach the front claws from the body and place a little mayonnaise inside the head. Next I mix the mayonnaise and head meat with a claw and devour this. Lastly the claws should be snapped in half – preferably with lobster or nut crackers – and the very sweet meat sucked out.
Rowley’s drinking choice
If langoustines were an everyday sort of food and we were sitting in the warm shade somewhere south of Avignon, I’d recommend a well-chilled bottle of Provençal rosé. If they are going to be an occasional treat, a cru Chablis, not too old.
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