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The scapece of Gallipoli The history of this delicious product – small fish preserved in vinegar, saffron and grated breadcrumbs – found in the markets of Salento and elsewhere.
It is mainly produced in Gallipoli but Vasto, in Abruzzo, also has a special recipe
by Dario Ersetti
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Scapece. Photo by Dario Ersetti

When the Hoenstaufen Frederick II, stupor mundi, came to his beloved Puglia, he gorged on mixed leaves, plants that grow wild in the countryside and are still used today. Another dish he liked and that was always to be found at his court, was eels from lake Lesina in Gargano preserved in vinegar. The preservation of foodstuffs (vegetables, fish, meat) using vinegar is a method known since ancient times, described by the Roman Marco Gavio Apicio, who is even credited with inventing it (Ut pisces fricti diu durent: eodem momento quo friguntur et levantur ab aceto calido perfunduntur. If you want to preserve fish sprinkle it with hot vinegar after frying). It may be precisely from “esca Apicii” (food of Apicio) that the procedure was called “scapece” in the South of Italy, “scabeccio” in Liguria and Piedmont, “escabeche” in Spain and “askipeciam” by Frederick II in the order he made to Riccardo di Pucaro of the Curia in Foggia on 28 March 1240. It is called “carpione” in the North of Italy, “saor” in Veneto and “aspic” in France.

Today with the availability of other methods of preservation, the use of vinegar is confined to impromptu recipes, like zucchine alla poverella in Puglia and all over southern Italy, sardines “in saor” in Veneto, the origin of which by the way was claimed to be Jewish by David de Pomi in his Ricettario Ebraico published in Venice in 1575. The exception in all this is the scapece of Gallipoli, where it has retained its original purpose, simply to preserve fish.

The monopoly on producing the scapece of Gallipoli is held by a small number of families, perhaps ten or so, descended from generations of scapeciari. It is sold exclusively in Salentinian markets. The recipe has remained strictly unchanged over the years. The ingredients are small fish of various kinds, which change according to the season, pupiddhru (picarel), mascularu (garizzo), minoscia (smelt), ope (bogues), cleaned with the removal of head and innards and then floured and fried; dried durum wheat bread grated strictly by hand to avoid overheating, which could make it ferment; red-wine vinegar decolored by mixing it with flour and then decanting it repeatedly until it is transparent; and lastly saffron stigma, and a little salt. The method then involves creating a layer of fish perfectly lined up in the bottom of a “caletta”, which is a vat of chestnut wood with a drainage plug at the base, covered with a layer of grated breadcrumbs, another of fish, and so on until all the bread is used up. The vat is then filled with vinegar and covered with a heavy wooden lid to compress the mixture. The scapece is ready in a few days and can be kept for a long time, which is exactly what the method is designed for.

At Vasto, in Abruzzo, the scapece is richer, using dogfish, skate, as well as shellfish and rock-fish. The pieces of fish are floured and fried and then arranged in layers in a barrel. Each layer is covered in boiling white-wine vinegar colored with saffron, splashed with a little Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and finally covered with lightly fried onion. The tradition of Vasto is believed to derive directly from ancient Rome, since many families from Vasto also had a house in Rome. In the Statutes of Otto I of the year 973 it says “Che nisuno venda pescio salato se non è stato quattro dì in salsa” (Nobody can sell salt fish unless it has been 4 days in preserving liquor). For a long period, ending in 1840, the vinegar-maker Molino produced large quantities of scapece which were sold all over Italy.

On the subject of saffron, remember that the best sort is Persian, although the saffron from Navelli, in Abruzzo, is very good. Salento stopped producing it in the 1800s, but in Puglia in the last few years there has been an attempt to produce it again at Deliceto, in the area of Foggia.

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