Chef Antonio Murè
Crostino di Polenta con Baccala’ Mantecato e Affumicato Recipe by Antonio Murè
Introduction by Antonio Murè
Images by Alessandro Casagrande & courtesy of Barrique
Originally published in Issue No. 3
Post WWII, the Italian Army made it mandatory that after high school, if you didn’t attend the university, you had to serve 12 months for the army. When I was 18, I was called up to serve my 12 months. At the time, it was a thorn in my side, but what it actually turned out to be, was the best opportunity to improve my culinary skills. I was based in Belluno, as a cook, preparing meals for 1,800 troops. No easy task.
During the Christmas break of 1988, I was chosen by the head chef to stay and prepare any meals needed, the head chef then went home to spend Christmas with his family. On Christmas Eve, I prepared one of my favorite lamb shank dishes for the 50 soldiers that stayed behind. Little did I know that the Colonel of the Italian Army would stop by the barracks to wish us a “Merry Christmas.” He smelt the lamb shank, and with a complimentary smile, asked “Who was the chef?” Then he was off to have dinner in the officers quarters. Thirty minutes later, a server from the officer quarters shows up asking me to prepare dishes for the colonel and his family. Then next day, I was transferred to the be the head chef preparing meals for all the officers.
During the banquet to celebrate the General from Circolo Ufficiali di Presidio, the General asked the Colonel, “Is there a civilian or military personnel in the kitchen?” The Colonel replied, “You aren’t stealing my chef.” The General called me over to congratulate me for the meal, he asked me where I was from, “I have family in Parma, but I’m from Sicily.” I replied, “You want to move closer to your family? I’m in Padova.” He asked with a smile. I shook my head “yes.” The General said, “I’m not stealing him, he volunteered”, winking at the Colonel. The next week I was transferred again, to Padova, an hour-and-a-half from Parma and a thirty minute train ride to Venice.
In six months I went from a stew cook in Belluno to Corporal officer in the kitchen. I was cooking for 120 of Italian’s top officers from the Presidio. I had a full kitchen and wait staff, half civilian and half military personnel. One lunch, I prepared Baccalà, Sicilian style. One of my wait staff, named Gavagnin from Venice, tasted my Baccalà, and said, “Your Baccalà is good, but the Baccalà Mantecato in Venice is better!”
That weekend we went on a “Fear and Loathing in Venice” trip, a Baccalà tasting and wine drinking adventure. It was my first experience in Venice and one I will never forget.
From the Venice train station to San Marco square, Gavagnin, took me through the beautiful calles of Venice, talking about art, architecture and the history of different Venetian families. I could only admire its beauty as one could from the eyes of a, then, 19-year-old boy from Sicily.
He introduced me to every little hole-in-the-wall (and off-the-beaten-path) Bacaro bar in Venice, that no tourist would ever find. In a wine-fueled haze, I still managed to study the preparation of the Baccalà at each spot, the texture, the olive oil, the smell, the thickness, and even managed to talk with some of the chef’s from these small Venice Bacaro bars, taking notes. Gavagnin and I would walk and talk the Calle, tasting the cicchetto and ombre, typical Venice finger food and drinks. I was critical of the Baccalà Mantecato from Venice. I knew I could make it better.
After that whirlwind weekend in Venice, I started to truly appreciate Veneto-style food and it’s now a big influence in my own cooking style.
We returned to the Presidio where I went to work on my Baccalà Mantecato recipe. I took the best qualities of the Baccalà that I had tasted in Venice and combined them with my experience and innovation to master my own recipe.
I prepared my new Baccalà Mantecato for Gavagnin, who said “It’s one of the best I’ve ever tasted.”
Crostino di Polenta con Baccala’ Mantecato e Affumicato
120 gr of polenta
500 ml of water
2 tablespoons of milk
1 Knob of Butter
1 a handful of Parmesan cheese
Salt and Pepper as required
500 gr of Baccalà soaked for at least 24 hours
200 ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Pink and black peppercorns
For the Polenta
Bring to boil the water and the milk with some salt. When boiling add the polenta and let it cook for 35 to 40 minutes mixing it regularly.
Finish it with butter and cheese and salt and pepper to taste.
Spread evenly the polenta over an oiled sheet pan and let it cool down.
For the Baccalà
Presoak the baccalà at least for 24 to 48 hours.
Clean the baccalà living only the white meat and make sure you take all the bones out.
Prepare a milk court-bouillon with lemon zest, black and pink peppercorn, garlic and bay leaves and bring it to boil. Add the Baccalaà and simmer it for 15/30 minutes. Once it is soft put it in the mixer and add parsley, lemon juice, and last extra virgin olive oil while you are whipping very slowly like if you were doing a mayonnaise until it reaches a smooth and soft consistency.
To finish the Polenta
Cut the polenta in little disks and grill it until it gets crispy. Compose the place alternating the polenta and the baccalà making a little tower. Cover the tower with a dome or a large glass, and filled it with smoke from the smoke gun.
Serve it covered.