On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon in mid-November, Marco Fregnan was in the kitchen of Publico Ristorante at Robertson Quay, firing up the charcoal oven. On the metal countertop adjacent to it, the chef de cuisine had placed a fresh sea bream, delicately sliced open from under its gills to its tail, a line tracing its underbelly, of which swelled with its stuffing of lemon, garlic and herbs. Once the oven was hot enough, he slid in the sea bream, placing half a lemon right beside it, for extra citrus aroma. Fregnan then swiftly moved to the further end of the countertop, pan-searing two large chunks of lobster tails. By its side, a bowl of pre-cooked capellini pasta sat, cooling down to room temperature.
Fregnan was preparing two meals for a sampling of Publico’s seasonal à la carte menu of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Arguably beginning as a Southern Italian (and now Italian-American) custom, there is plenty of debate over the Feast of the Seven Fishes’ origin and how to celebrate it. It’s a grand meal of different kinds of seafood that’s served before midnight Mass. Hence its other name, The Vigil. Though not necessarily a religious ritual, the fish part of the feast can be traced back to the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve, while the number may refer to the seven sacraments. Or it could be the Seven Hills of Rome. No one is sure, but the tradition has stuck fast.
In the kitchen’s countertop, a tray of Fregnan’s raw ingredients for the two dishes from Publico’s Feast of the Seven Fishes festive menu. Clockwise from top left: a sea bream, fresh from Europe; rosemary; slices of lemon; a boxed serving of sea urching emulsion; and Rougie lobster tail.
The sea bream was sliced open and stuffed with a slice of lemon and aromatic herbs.
After it was stuffed, the sea bream was grilled in a charcoal oven for about 10 minutes.
For one, Fregnan, a Northern Italian, had not heard of the feast’s moniker until just a couple of months ago. And it’s not just Fregnan; many Italian cooks aren’t aware of the term, too. It’s not that the feast doesn’t exist — to the contrary, it is one of the most important and sacred Italian culinary events in the calendar year, one that takes days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, of preparation and planning. But as to the importance of precisely how many fish dishes grace the table? What fish should be included and how they should be prepared can vary. Some people cook seven courses; some choose to make 12 (in a nod to the 12 apostles). Some concoct a bunch of seafood in a stew and call it good. As Fregnan’s family does, many Italian families keep their own traditions, but everyone who celebrates is on the same page for one thing: Seafood should be prepared and consumed on Christmas Eve.
In a holiday season customarily dominated by roasted fowl and heavily braised meats, a meal revelling in the bounty of the sea is a welcome change. And it’s a breeze to cook — season it up, throw it into the oven and wait — and almost as easy to serve. There are no hard-and-fast rules about the preparation of the feast.
At Publico, Fregnan prepares the meals as he would back in his hometown, Treviso. The 34-year-old spent a decade as a chef in Italy before moving to Singapore, six good years of it at his parents’ neighbourhood trattoria in Venice.
“Because I used to work at my family’s restaurant, I was lucky enough to get the day off while other people would still be stuck at work on Christmas Eve,” the chef recalled. “It’s usually just my sister and I in the kitchen where we would spend all day preparing for the dinner feast.” The staple Fregnan family dishes included a comforting seafood lasagna and bollito di pesce, an antipasti of boiled seafood. In the dining room, a table shrouded in red and white table cloth would be the canvas to Fregnan’s toil of the day. “In the evening, everyone would come together for dinner — my parents, my siblings, their partners and children, and their partner’s families,” he said, noting that the food will be served course by course, adhering to its order, from appetiser and pasta to mains and dessert.
Fregnan pan-searing the cooked Rougie lobster meat.
The seared lobster meat was then served alongside cold cappellini pasta that was rolled-up. Here, Fregnan festooning the dish with a serving of sea urchin emulsion.
This is perhaps why Fregnan and his team at Publico decided that their contemporary rendition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes was to be an à la carte menu. The freedom to opt according to one’s own seafood predilection is at the heart of the feast. The convivial spirit of celebration is easily bolstered and fuelled by it, because, unlike hearty meats, a sampling of fishes and crustaceans tend not to encumber the gut.
“This sea bream is very, very classic,” Fregnan gestured towards the now-grilled sea bream he plated on the wooden tray before him. In a matter-of-fact manner, the fish was dressed with a cluster of arugula; grilled cherry tomatoes and lemon on its side. “This is how we eat grilled seafood in Italy. It’s very light on the sauce: just olive oil, fresh veggies,” said Fregnan. The fish’s freshness is integral to the way it is cooked. The sea breams at Publico arrive once to twice a week from Europe. “So we cook it very quickly to keep the real taste and sweetness of the ocean flavour,” the chef quipped.
From left: chef Fregnan’s uni cappellini with Rougie lobster and grilled sea bream.
Right next to the dish, a long plate with the seared lobster tail and a serving of sea urchin emulsion and Avruga caviar sat atop a bed of the room-temperature cappellini pasta. “We wanted to do something different. The lobster is an obvious classic but the cold pasta highlights a sea urchin emulsion when the ingredient is not commonly available in Italy.”
Other fusions on Publico’s Feast of the Seven Fishes menu include a lavish take on pizza, named the Pizza Royale: It’s lavishly crowned with a medley of Avruga caviar, black truffle, sea urchin, Hokkaido scalloped and a luxuriant sprinkling of edible gold leaves. A more pared-back version can be found in the Pizza Polpo, where the stone oven-baked dough is slathered with squid ink tomato base and studded with grilled octopus.
“Complement the meal with some prosecco on the side, and lots of good company, of course,” said Fregnan. And after all that, dessert or something on the sweet side is always a good idea. A suggestion from Fregnan: a panettone dipped in hot vanilla sauce and a classic tiramisu would be divine.
Visit chef Marco Fregnan at Publico Ristorante, InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay, 1 Nanson Road. At Publico, the à la carte seasonal specials of the Feast of the Seven Fishes are available for dinner until 30 December.
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