Catfish: from threat to opportunity

25 May 2023

At Slow Fish 2023 we look beyond the sea to inland waters, rivers and lakes. Among the protagonists of the Taste Workshops, and a dinner in the heart of Genoa, is Daniele Provezza, who runs the kitchen of Dispensa Franciacorta, a modern osteria and wine bar on the shores of Lake Iseo.

He brings a contemporary gastronomic theme to the table at Slow Fish: invasive species, which have been posing a threat to the biodiversity of Italian rivers and lakes for several years now.

These are  species that are colonizing new habitats, to the detriment of the native species. Specifically, the Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) is a freshwater fish native to Eastern Europe. Adults can weigh up to 100 kilos, reach up to three meters in length, and populates lakes, large rivers and drainage canals in central and northern Italy. But at Dispensa Franciacorta the ecological threat has been turned into a resource, and today the catfish is an integral part of the menu. We talk about this shift with Daniele Provezza, who tells us how they came to experiment with catfish meat, and overcome their customers’ misgivings.

The Taste Workshop: June 3 at 3 p.m.

Invasive species occupy our ecosystems, expanding undisturbed and putting local flora and fauna at risk. They may arrive in the ballast waters of ocean-going vessels, be introduced deliberately by humans, or else arrive of their own intuition in the warming climate. Whether they’re crustaceans, invertebrates, fish or even algae, they’re an increasingly common problem in our seas, lakes and rivers. Daniele Provezza, chef at Dispensa Franciacorta, brings some preparations made with the meat of Wels catfish to Genoa. Following the Coast to Coast theme, there’ll also be a selection of production from the land around the lake, like citrus fruits, oil and, of course, wine.

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The call of home

A mosaic of lake fish

A member of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance, Daniele Provezza is one of those people who has always seen a clear path ahead of him. Cooking is in his veins and, before returning to him home on Lake Iseo, he worked as a chef in Lugano, the Maldives and at the Relais Mont Blanc in Courmayeur.

“Then I felt my calling me. I went back to my roots with the idea of offering a cuisine that would enhance the ingredients of the local area, but in a different way.” This is clear when we read the menu where we find, among other things, a “smoked Lake Iseo sardine, pan brioche and carpione gel”; the “steamed Calvisius sturgeon, spring vegetables and bear garlic sauce”; and the “catfish tortelli from Lake Iseo, lake tripe and lemon caviar.”

The choice to focus on catfish was particularly courageous, as Provezza recounts. “The Wels catfish is now, to all intents and purposes, a local product. In the waters of the lake it is a pest, but we have set ourselves the goal of restoring value to this species in a gastronomic sense. Many customers were mistrustful, to say the least. It is generally imagined to be a large fish, full of bones and unfit for human consumption.” A waste product, in short. The classic fish that, “once caught, was thrown into the meadows because it had little or no value.”

Local menu

Tortelli with Lake Iseo catfish, tripe and lemon caviar

But, we said, Dispensa Franciacorta’s approach was in many ways courageous: “We understood that this fish that normally populates the waters of our lake is perfectly edible, we set to work to bring out its flavor, which, contrary to popular belief, is extremely delicate. We had the courage to offer it on the menu of our restaurant, which is on many gastronomic guides, and which has a very demanding Italian and international clientele.”

The Wels catfish, in a context like this, also tells us a lot about the educational function and philosophy of the restaurant. When they see it on the menu the customers put themselves to the test. “By working and experimenting with it, we have discovered that it is a very versatile fish: you can eat it raw, cooked, and we also process its tripe, cooked like Brescian tripe. Its delicate taste even makes it suitable for children; I can imagine it on school menus, in place of of pangasius and tilapia, which come from far away.”

The dinner: June 3 at 8 p.m.

The recovery of seas and lakes are the theme of a special evening. The hosts of Quelli dell’Acciughetta di Genova together with Daniele Provezza, chef of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance and Dispensa Franciacorta, and Gelatina ice creams, give us a taste of dishes designed to enhance the excellence of two geographically and morphologically distant territories. There is a creative spark among the group of young chefs that makes for a unique and unmissable dinner, organized by Catta for Tempi di Recupero at the Acciughetta restaurant.

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Not just catfish: Lake panorama

The cheese selection at Dispensa Franciacorta is of the highest quality

This area is represented by much more than just Wels catfish, of course. Prominent among the fish offerings are other freshwater species that normally do not enjoy the same good name as sea species. As Provezza tells me, “Many lake fish, compared to marine species, do not enjoy a good reputation. They are normally considered muddy, smooth, but these are cultural mistakes. With our work we try to change this perception, and we propose, with full respect for seasonality, pike, carp, crayfish… When properly processed they are all very appetizing for the customer.”

There is in all of this the sense of an alliance with local producers, which is an essential element of the philosophy of Dispensa Franciacorta, and of Slow Food. The fisherman of choice is Andrea Soardi, producer of the Lake Iseo Traditional Dried Sardine Presidium, and there are many Presidia on the menu, as can also be seen in the cheese menu offerings: “We have Val Saviore fatulì from the Le Frise company, alpine pasture bagòss from Malga Dolci, Agrì from Valtorta, the Historic Rebel cheese… and for fruits and vegetables, we rely on the Girasole Cooperative, which also plays an important social role, as it provides employment for marginalized people.”

Come and discover the treasures of Lake Iseo for yourself at Slow Fish!

by Silvia Ceriani,

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

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