Tiny Fish, Exquisite Flavor

Valero Doval

The smallest fish in the sea are a seasonal Italian delicacy.

I peeled off the upper lemon leaf. Beneath it lay a white filigree of tiny fish bodies fused together. Very gently I lifted it off the supporting lemon leaf and slipped it into my mouth. There was a sensation rather than a flavor, an exquisite impression of fishiness overlaid with the faintest whiff of citrus oil. It hung for a moment and then was gone, a delicate shadow of neonate etched into my palate and my memory.

Neonate, the tiniest of fish. Think of whitebait, only much smaller. Elvers, the legendary young eels no bigger than the tine of a fork, which ride the Gulf Stream 3,500 miles from the Sargasso Sea off Florida to the rivers of Europe, would be the closest fishy experience I can think of, but even they are crude, muscular things compared with the ineffable neonate of the Mediterranean, as thin as a thread and no longer than a needle. For centuries they’ve been a seasonal part of Italian culinary culture. And there’s the problem: According to the European Union, it’s illegal to catch or eat or possess or buy them. Some of them, that is.

Neonato is the Italian word for “newborn.” As is always the case in Italy, multiple words may describe the same food, depending on where you are—in this case, there’s bianchetti, cicenielli and gianchetti, among many others. In standard Italian rather than dialect, novellame di pesce (young fish) seems to be generally accepted. It’s what the Italian Ministry of Agriculture uses, anyway.

For obvious reasons, EU regulators and conservationists are concerned about the supply of fish in the Mediterranean. According to the European Environment Agency, as much as 78 percent of commercial fish stocks in the region are under threat, the result of overfishing and pollution. At the same time, the eastern Mediterranean is being colonized by new species that have made their way along the Suez Canal from the Red Sea, while the west is seeing the arrival of tropical Atlantic fish. Farming of sea bream, sea bass and various shellfish has developed extensively, but that brings its own share of pollution problems. However you look at it, by eating neonate, you’re eating the fish future of the Mediterranean.

But in the curious way that European aqua-cultural politics operates, certain species are exempt from the ban. It seems we can all wolf down with impunity pesci azzurri (blue fish) in their minute form—such as sardines, anchovies, sand smelt and shad—while newly hatched sole, red and gray mullet, bream, hake and swordfish, are forbidden. How these distinctions are made is a paradox wrapped in an enigma. Slow Food, the global organization that champions environmentally sound food production, takes a more clear-cut view: “Do not buy or order neonate in restaurants.” Which raises the question: Is it all right, then, to eat neonate at home?

Of course, there is a world of difference between laying down the law and enforcing it. Consequently, between December 1 and April 30 (or January 15 and March 15, depending on whose directive happens to hold sway), polystyrene boxes of what appears to be viscous, translucent, opalescent floss marked with tiny black dots will appear in fish markets along the Italian coast. Some will be legal and some not. You would need to be a fish scientist to be able to tell. Either way, gourmets will settle down to the annual delights of frittata di neonata, neonate bound with egg to make a superior omelet. Or dusted with chickpea flour and fried into crisp fish toothpicks. Or steamed and served with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of olive oil. And should you miss the season for any reason, do not despair: Look out for little jars of Rosamarina or Mustica, a Calabrian delicacy made from sun-dried neonate preserved in chili powder and oil. Spread it on toast and enjoy the rich, spicy taste of the south.

As for me, I guess I’ll have to show environmental solidarity and eschew this treat, and graze once again on the memories of 13 years ago, of the ethereal neonate wafer I ate in a restaurant called L’Approdo (Via Roma 22; 39-0963/572-640; lapprodo.com) at Vibo Marina on the Calabrian coast. The restaurant is still there, but not, I’m afraid, the neonate. Perhaps it’s just as well.