Back in October 2018 we wrote about the flurry of food festivals launched around Lake Como. These are intended to attract people into dining in local restaurants during what would normally be a quiet period between the summer and winter seasons. One of these festivals, GastroLario, is now into its third year but has made some significant changes to its format. It is now hoping to draw people into dining out through a focussed celebration of local lake fish entitled ‘The Festival of Misultin and Lake Fish’ or ‘Festival del Misultin e del Pess de Lac’ in local dialect.
In the two previous years GastroLario’s initiative had covered both mountain and lake cuisines within the same period but for this and all subsequent years, GastroLario will feature just the lake cuisine throughout the month of October with a celebration of the lake’s best known speciality – missoltini. GastroLario will be followed in November by a different initiative named GustoBrianza which will feature Brianzan or mountain cuisine. The other major local food festival honours a single dish – the belly-busting winter delicacy of cassuola made from pork and cabbage. The cassuola festival runs annually from January to March even though cassuola features on local menus from November onwards.
The changed format for GastroLario is designed to create greater awareness of the lake cuisine which will in turn help promote the lake’s attractions beyond the end of the summer season. There are 25 restaurants participating in the festival with most but not all positioned on or close to the lake (the furthest away is in Mariano Comense on the southern edge of Como Province). These restaurants range from those which can be classed as ‘luxury’ such as the Antica Darsena in Como or the Imperialino in Moltrasio, to those which classify themselves as neighbourhood establishments many of whom seem to be located along Via Bellinzona.
Those facing directly onto the lake include Momi’s in Blevio and the Hotel Vapore in Torno (both firm favourites of mine). In the words of GastroLario’s organiser, Claudio Bizzozero, ‘the best way to get to know the area is to unite the beauty of the landscape with the beauty of the dishes proposed by our restauranteurs.’ Consult the GastoLario website for a full list of the participating restaurants and for details of the festival dishes proposed by each of them.
Needless to say, most of the participating restaurants will be offering missoltini, or ‘misultin’ in dialect. Missoltini are unique to Lake Como being a form of preserved freshwater sardine with a very distinctive flavour which, to be honest, is not to everyone’s taste. If you do find missoltini a bit strong, you may well prefer one of the other lake specialities such as lavarello (whitefish) usually served grilled with butter and sage. Perch fillets have a very delicate flavour which goes very well either on buttery rice or a creamy risotto. Another local delicacy is paté di cavedano (chub). Chub have lots of small bones and so, for safety reasons, are only served in paté form within restaurants.
Missoltini are the preserved versions of a lake fish called agone or shard in English. They are a form of freshwater sardine that evolved from its marine origins when the continents formed. The lake hosts another species with a similar history, the ‘bottatrice’ or burbot in English which is a freshwater relative of cod.
Fishing for agoni has been strictly controlled since medieval times to ensure stock levels. The agoni make their way to the shallow waters near the shore to lay their eggs in May to mid-June. Fishing is prohibited during this period but they are fair game from mid-June onwards for two months. Once cleaned, the fish are salted, dried (often in the sun) and then pressed into tins with some laurel or other flavourings. The tins are called ‘missolte’, from which the fish get the name ‘misultin’ or ‘missoltini’ in Italian. They are served grilled and often accompanied by polenta. There are a number of festivals or sagras dedicated to missoltini around the lake with the best-known being in Mezzegra, a district of Tremezzina. This sagra normally takes place on or close to the last weekend in August but fell victim this year to Covid 19. Tremezzina’s other major summer event – the Sagra di San Giovanni, was a similar victim this year. The Sagra del Missoltino has been running for 50 years and will hopefully return in 2021 alongside Isola Comacina’s Sagra di San Giovanni.
Preserving fish was obviously critical before the days of refrigeration and missoltini were part of the staple diet of those living around the lake. Salting and drying was not the only way of preserving fish with the other main method being to marinate cooked fish in a vinegar-based liquid called ‘carpione’. Carpione as a method of preservation has been used since ancient times on the lake. Fish ‘in carpione’ are normally served cold these days as an antipasto. It offers a different way of enjoying agone other than as missoltino or lavarello other than grilled. Historically it was often used to counter the somewhat muddy taste of carp, hence the probable source of its name.
Some people have questioned to what extent the lake fish on offer in local restaurants actually originate from Lake Como. I don’t think we need be concerned over the provenance of missoltini even though there have been moments when concerns have been raised over the numbers of agoni in the lake. As mentioned previously, the fishing of agoni has been controlled over centuries. The origins of some perch fillets might be more questionable but, even though stocks have dropped low in the past, current indications are more positive. Many of the lake’s perch are however quite small. There are a firm set of regulations defining closed seasons for each type of fish species with rules on the size and the numbers of caught fish that can be retained. Levels of water pollution have declined over the years as it has become illegal to allow untreated waste to flow into the lake.
However climate change and the resulting increase in the variations of lake level are a threat. Many species including agone come close to shore to spawn and, if the level of the lake subsequently drops dramatically as it has done in recent years, their eggs do not survive exposure above or just below the water level. The other unseen and as yet, unquantified threat comes from the level of micro-plastic pollution which is high on the lake as it is almost everywhere. Some recent research with marine fish has shown how microplastics can provide a platform for the development of harmful bacteria which could possibly become a threat to some species.
Empirically the arrival in recent years of large colonies of cormorants on the lake does suggest that fish stocks must be quite healthy. An article in La Provincia back in February this year highlighted a colony of up to 250 cormorants nesting in Blevio with the estimate that they consumed around 120Kg of fish a day – twice the quantity of fish consumed during Mezzegra’s Sagra di Missoltini back in 2019. Their numbers have grown significantly over the last two or three years with a migratory pattern that sees most of them flying off north in Spring only to return again in autumn. These increased numbers must indicate that the lake is well enough stocked to maintain their ever increasing numbers, but the local fishermen feel the birds are taking more than fair shares.
In spite of the cormorants, we can feel confident that fish stocks held by the 25 restaurants featured in the Festival of Misultin will originate from Lake Como and be numerous enough to meet our needs. The Festival website also welcomes feedback on the individual dishes offered by the participating restaurants. Those contributing their feedback stand the chance of receiving a voucher allowing them to go back and eat again at their selected location. There is of course no need to limit yourself to the restaurants listed in the festival if looking to taste genuine local cuisine. There are many other restaurants around the lake with local fish on their menu all year round.
If by chance you develop a passion for missoltini or other lake fish ‘in carpione’, there are shops who stock them such as Castiglioni in Como or outlets dedicated to lake fish like Le Specialita Lariane in Cernobbio. You can even acquire missoltini online from Misultinshop.it – a processing plant and shop in Olginate on the Lecco leg of the lake. Lake fish, with lavarello in particular, are on sale from either of the two fishmongers within Como’s covered market. And if you fancy fishing yourself for whitefish, shard, chub, char, carp or burbot, get your equipment and fishing licence from Ropino (25 Via Asiago) in Tavernola or contact Lake Como Fishing in Griante for a day’s excursion by boat on the lake or on the River Adda and some of its tributaries in the Valtellina. Staff at Ropino and Lake Como Fishing are all said to be exceptionally helpful and willing to give advice on all matters relating to fishing on the lake.