Just the other day I was admonished by my dear editor-in-chief for not writing a post about brodet in our blogging history. I have taken her remark very seriously because any talk about Dalmatian (and Mediterranean) gastronomy is senseless without mentioning this specialty. I was convinced that I had introduced “her majesty” of seafood at the beginning of my blogging career because brodet can be considered a dish where it “all begins and ends”. This text is my redemption…
First of all, I have to mention that here are several names for this dish in the Croatian language – all are very similar but different due to dialectal varieties. The most common names are brodet, brudet and brujet, while one almost forgotten version would be bujabiž. All those names are derived from foreign languages so brodet (brudet, brujet) comes from the Italian brodetto while bujabiž comes from French bouillabaisse. The meaning of them all suggests some sort of a soup made of fish and/or seafood. Croatian official language isn’t very creative about brodet so it describes it as a fish or seafood stew or broth, but delicacy like brodet deserves a more poetic name… Such or similar dishes appear in all the Mediterranean countries, with local varieties appearing all the way from the Adriatic coasts of Portugal and Spain, through the French coast and Apennine peninsula to Greece and the Adriatic Sea. It would be an endless quest if one tried to describe all the varieties of brodet that appear around. There are some typical recipes named after certain cities (like Marseilles in France or Rimini and Fano in Italy…) but all chefs in Dalmatian restaurants have their own recipes, mostly inherited from their ancestors.
In the Croatian Adriatic the dish is basically prepared of several sorts of fish and some inevitable ingredients – olive oil, salt and pepper, onions and garlic, parsley and peeled tomatoes. If you ask the natives from older generations about the fish used for brodet they would answer ‘any fish you caught last night’ but in most cases the finest brodet is made of grouper, scorpion fish, frogfish (monkfish), sea bass, sea-bream, eel, conger and John Dory. Two or three types of the mentioned would be sufficient while the taste differs according to the combination of different fish and the taste of ingredients, especially the olive oil. Many chefs combine fish with crabs and shells, adding their own combinations of spices, using secret tricks…
Although the Croatian Adriatic is a relatively small part of the world, there are hundreds of different tastes of brodet. Each variety of this dish tells you a story about a certain area and its history, about chefs, their family heritage and invention. Therefore, brodet prepared in the south Adriatic and Dubrovnik region would taste sophisticated and rich with grouper, while one from the mouth of the river Neretva is inconceivable without eels and frogs, slightly burning your mouth with local chili peppers. The islanders from Central Dalmatia like to prepare brodet with squid, cuttlefish and octopus, while those from the coast stick to scorpion fish, frogfish and conger, even daring to cook it with potatoes (this can be found around Šibenik).
Depending on the social status, brodet has showed different faces throughout history. The dish prepared with a lobster’s head could be seen on the tables in noblemen house, while the poor had to help themselves with what they had. This is why there is one recipe for brodet without any fish – it is prepared with stones. It is not a joke, pumice stone is very rich with plankton, which gives the dish a fine taste and the so-needed proteins. Therefore, it makes sense that brodet is not easy to describe – it has to be prepared and tasted, so let’s do it!
Among all the interesting versions that I have heard of, seen and tasted, I would like to share with you the way my mother (and her mother before her) prepares brodet. Warm up some olive oil and soy oil on the bottom of a wide dish. The combination of two oils comes from the early days when pure olive oil was not purified and was too strong, which is why it would give a bitter taste to a meal if used without “ordinary” oil to dilute it.
Next come onions. They have to be chopped into not too small pieces and put on a warm (not hot) oil. When onions release their juice and get a golden colour, it is time to add a few tiny-cut cloves of garlic, ground black pepper, tiny cut parsley and one large bay leaf. At this point my grandmother used to put slices of tomato on top of the simmering onions, but I have one remark here. In the old days a special type of tomatoes was used for sauces in Dalmatia. That one had an oblong shape and was very fleshy, with very thin skin, perfect to cook with. Nowadays they are very rare, so canned peeled tomatoes with a little bit of tomato puree would do.
After a few minutes of simmering, one teaspoon of sugar has to be added in order to “kill” the acids from tomatoes. For special occasions, old ladies would put a shot of prošek (Dalmatian sherry) instead of sugar. After another few minutes of simmering, the ingredients should fuse together.
The usual combination of fish in my family was scorpion fish and conger. In the old days, rather large scorpion fish were available at the fish market in Split so their heads would end in a fish soup, while the body would be used for brodet. Congers are rather rare nowadays but back then they would be put on the branches of trees before preparing in order to be rid of tiny spines. Occasionally, fillets of the shark would be added to scorpion fish and conger, but only if they spent a night in milk in order to lose a bad taste and soften a bit.
After you put pieces of fish into the dish, add as much water as necessary to cover the fish. You can add some vinegar into the water to keep the flesh of the fish consistent. If you put too much of vinegar, it could ruin the taste of the sauce. Keep the fire moderate, just enough for slight boil. Add some salt (preferably ground) and leave it like that until the water evaporates and the sauce gets (not too) dense.
Some time before you decide that your brodet is finished, you can put half a glass of red wine into the dish. The other half is for you as a reward if the taste and consistency are satisfactory. Brodet was usually served with palenta (polenta, corn flour) as a side dish and with thick Dalmatian red wine. That’s the way my mother was thought by her mama and nona (grandmother). If you like the story and the recipe I might share with you some other interesting variants of brodet which I have found sailing along the Dalmatian coast and islands.
I wish you a calm sea, fair winds and a strong mast!