Fisherman’s Soup – Kakavia

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My first memories of eating Kakavia are not at home, but outdoors by the sea at Falasarna. My dad fished here a lot when I was little. Sometimes we would stay in shacks there in summer, or us kids would sleep on mattresses in the backs of cars. It was so much fun.

We would have the freedom of running around the beach all day and after sundown we would play hide and seek for hours. Overnight my dad and his friends would go fishing in their respective boats and upon their return in the morning, we would excitedly run to see their catch.

The fish that was to be sold was immediately put on ice – this was of such importance to keep the catch as fresh as possible and I grew up in awe of how my dad respected the fish. They’d be stacked neatly like little soldiers, belly-up. This would preserve the sensitive fish bellies to ensure the best care of them possible.

Not all the fish was sold though. Some smaller ones and ones deemed not good enough for market would go into Kakavia. It’s a soup of the fish that was too much hassle to do anything else with and this elegant rescuing of these little sub-standard fish is probably what makes it so delicious.

The fisherman gave the catch to their wives to clean. The experienced women, our mums, would perfectly prep the fish and give it back to the men gathered around the large gas hob on the long table we all ate at. An even bigger gas cylinder would be attached to the hob as to make this soup properly, it requires a strong fire.

Peeled potatoes cut into quarters would sit in a single layer at the base of the huge pan. The fish would follow, big first and smaller on top. A couple of sun-ripe tomatoes would be chopped and thrown in, lots of good sea salt, local olive oil and water. Kakavia takes lots of olive oil which is why it turns into the most beautiful, golden silky soup. Every 2 and a half glasses of water is matched with 1 glass of oil. The liquid must just cover the fish – too much and you don’t get the same richness of sauce, too little and it won’t be enough to go around everyone.

The hob would be on the fire and the large pot would soon start bubbling. My dad used to say, “you must never stir Kakavia – only shake the pot.” Sometimes I was allowed to do this. In the meantime, as it cooked we would juice lemons for the serving. After a lot of pot shakes and a good while of hard boiling, the soup would be ready. The lemon juice would go in and the hob turned off to allow for the important Kakavia resting.

We would set the table with shallow soup bowls and sometimes not much else. A basket full of Cretan barley rusks would go in the middle of the table and the pot would be brought out. The fish was carefully removed to a platter and the soup shared out between bowls.

Sometimes we didn’t use spoons – we crushed rusks onto our bowls, let them soak up the silky soup and eat with our fingers. The leaves from the Tamarisk tree would sometimes fall into our bowls and I would try to pick them out. My dad’s friend Haralambos would chastise me, saying “Eeee, Marianna! What are you doing?! It’s seasoning!”

I’ve seen and made Kakavia hundreds of times but it was a long time before I was trusted to make it for customers at our family restaurant. Still now, I get the same excitement and nervousness when I make it like I did for the first time. Making a good Kakavia means making a lot of people sat round a table very happy.

Serves 4-6

Making Kakavia is easy enough as long as you have a few fundamentals right: fresh, gelatinous fish, very good olive oil and a strong hob that is preferably gas. Turbot works beautifully here but gurnard, hake or halibut will give you a delicious result too. It’s vital that you keep the fish heads in your soup even if you don’t want to eat them. The all-important gelatine in the fish heads marries with the olive oil to create a thick, silken broth that you will never want to end.

1kg medium potatoes, peeled and quartered

1.5kg (approx.) turbot or other fish, scaled, gutted and cut into 5 pieces including the head

300g chopped tomatoes

A generous serving of seasalt

400ml extra virgin olive oil

600ml water

2 large lemons, juiced

Use a saucepan that will fit the potatoes snugly in a single layer at the bottom. Add the fish, tomatoes, salt, oil and water: the liquid should partly cover the fish but not completely.

Put the pan on a high heat and bring to a vigorous boil, cover with a lid and continue to boil for 20 minutes. Shake the pan every so often but NEVER stir. Check the potatoes are soft and and turn off the heat, add the lemon juice, give it a final shake and then let it sit off the heat for another 15 minutes.

To serve use a slotted spoon to carefully lift the fish onto a platter. Divide the soup and potatoes between bowls. In Crete we would serve with barley rusks but a good toasted sourdough will work just fine.