Marmitako is a simple fishman’s stew from país Vasco (the Basque Country) which takes it’s name from the pot it’s cooked in – a marmita, coming from the French marmite (also where the English spread gets it’s name). According to Larousse Gastronomique, a marmite is, “A metal or earthenware covered pot, with or without feet” – unusual, since the Basques were probably the original inhabitants of Western Europe, before the Celts arrived. The Basque language is not similar in any way to Celtic or Latin and it does not seem to be related to any other language, so you’d think that French would have borrowed marmite from Basque and not the other way round – I’m quite certain that covered pots existed before the Romans. The subject is further complicated by the fact that these days, the Basque Country exists across the borders of both France and Spain.
…but I digress – marmitako was originally a fish stew cooked on board Basque fishing boats, in covered metal pots. Over time the marmitako found it’s way into the home and from there to restaurants, probably via Txokos (Basque gastronomic societies).
I went to buy some hake from the fish stall in the market about two months ago and was surprised to see a bonito (meaning, good looking in Spanish) taking pride of place. Bonito is a relative of mackerel and tuna – it’s a fast swimmer and likes to eat other fish. Bonito is quite popular in Spain and tastes very similar to tuna, but in the UK it’s practically unknown. I immediately thought of making marmitako because bonito is the fish associated with it, though tuna is a common substitute. I assumed the fish was by-catch, since it’s not sought after here, so asked the fishmonger if he’d have more in the future – he said that he’d try to get me one the following week.
Why the hesitation you ask? Well, an important ingredient in marmitako is the dried choricero pepper, so I need to find some in order to make the dish. Choriceros are not easy to come by outside of país Vasco, but one can buy Carne de Pimiento Choricero (choricero flesh) in a jar online. I nearly bought some, for a reasonable price, but balked at paying double the price in postage. So instead, I went to see the Spanish butcher in Camden – he’d never heard of them (being from Andalucia) so I continued to R. Garcia & Sons on Portobello Road. I looked around for a jar of choriceros, without much luck, but when I asked at the counter, the helpful assistant handed me a paper bag and pointed at a wooden box in front of me. They sell dried choriceros for 35p each – amazing, just what I really wanted!
I went back to see the fishmonger the following week and of course he had no bonito. He did, however, say he’d keep his eyes peeled. Two months later, I went to buy some prawns and the fishmonger said, “I’ve got some nice tuna for you today!” I replied, “No, it’s bonito I’m looking for.” He held up a bonito and said, “This is the first one I’ve seen in Billingsgate, since you asked me two months ago!” I immediately bought the bonito and left the prawns for another day!
My bonito weighed just under a kilo and measured 42 cm – they can grow up to 75 cm in length.
Before proceeding, I consulted my Basque friend Amaia for expert advise.
She said, “I always cook a very simple marmitako recipe, as in the Basque country everything is about simplicity. My mum would say that the key is in the ingredients, so she always buys very good tomatoes, incredible leeks, etc. for the fish stock.”
I know this to be true, because when Amaia’s mum comes to London from Bilbao, she brings all her cooking ingredients with her – even the leeks!
Bonito bones, head and skin
1 onion (cut in half)
6 cloves garlic (bruised)
1 carrot (quartered)
1 stick celery (quartered)
2 leek tops
a large tomato (halved)
2 bay leaves
a heaped teaspoon of fennel seeds
a few sprigs thyme
a handful of fresh parsley
a level teaspoon black peppercorns
sea salt (to taste)
a glass of white wine
1 1/2 pints water
2 dessertspoons extra virgin olive oil
First of all, scale and filet the bonito, then cut off the skin. A fishmonger will do this for you if asked. Chop the flesh into bite sized pieces and keep chilled. Remove the gills and stomach contents. Rinse the fish head and bones then combine with the above ingredients to make fish stock.
Bring the ingredients to a simmer and skim off any foam on the surface of the liquid. Cook gently for 30 minutes.
When the stock has cooled, strain and remove all the depleted vegetables, bones etc.
Ideally choricero peppers should be soaked overnight, but a one hour soak in boiling water will suffice. Put a small bowl or plate on top of the peppers to keep them submerged.
Marmitako recipe (serves 4):
1 Bonito 800g – 1Kg (filleted, skinned and cut into chunks)
6 medium potatoes (peeled)
1 large onion (sliced)
6 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
1 green pepper (chopped)
2 tomatoes (grated)
2 pimientos choriceros
1 1/2 pints fish stock
1 glass Txakoli (dry white wine)
1 1/2 heaped teaspoons pimentón de la Vera (dulce)
2 small cayenne peppers
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and cracked black pepper
a teaspoon fresh chopped parsley
Cut the onion in half and then into thin slices. Fry the onion gently with plenty of extra virgin olive oil in a cast iron casserole, until soft.
Add the chopped green pepper,
followed by two grated tomatoes. Tomato would appear to be optional and it’s omitted in some recipes that I’ve seen. The chopped garlic can go in now too.
Peel and cut the potatoes into chunks – ideally cut and twisted (with a pairing knife) at the same time. This create unevenly shaped potatoes which release more starch to thicken the broth.
Fry everything for a few minutes before sprinkling on 1 1/2 heaped teaspoons pimentón de la Vera (dulce).
Mix the pimentón into the vegetables.
Bring the liquid to a simmer. Gently open up each choricero pepper and remove the seeds. Place these peppers on top of the stew, along with two small cayenne peppers. Put the lid on the casserole and simmer on the hob, or place in a preheated oven at 160º C for 1 hour.
Remove the choricero peppers, scrape out the inner flesh (carne – meat in Spanish) and stir it into the casserole. Discard the skin. Return to the oven for a further 30 minutes uncovered to thicken the sauce.
Drop the bonito pieces on top of the sauce, season with salt and pepper, then cover and cook for a further 5 minutes.