Great Barrington — Wandering Jews have always packed their lunch – or at least their family recipes. So it was that when the Sephardic Jews of 15th century Spain fled the Inquisition and made their way to safer parts of Europe, they brought traditional recipes with them, which they then adapted to local ingredients.
Greece was the destination for many Sephardim in this mass exodus. Salonica (now, Thessalonica ) became known as the New Jerusalem, and there a mix of Jews, Muslims, and Coptic Christians lived together in relative harmony for centuries. Another prime destination was the lush island of Corfu, then a part of the Venetian empire, where some Romaniote Jewish families, dating back two thousand years, already resided. So, on Corfu, the table was set for a glorious mix of Sephardic, Romaniote, and Venetian delectables, later adding Turko-Hellenic flourishes.
Happily – and deliciously – some of these Sephardic Greek feasts have wandered into Great Barrington just in time for the Jewish High Holy Days. Here, Corfu-born George Cami, chef at the Aegean Breeze, cooks up the marvelously piquant fish dish, Bourthetto, a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) staple for Sephardic Jews.
Cami learned how to make bourthetto from his maternal grandmother, Pinelopi Tsatis, a Romaniote Jew whose forbearers are said to have inhabited Corfu since biblical times. Because the Romaniotes lived along side the Inquisition Sephardim, Mrs. Tsatis knew many Sephardic recipes.
“In honor of our grandmother’s heritage,” Cami says, “my family always served bourthetto on the Jewish New Year, although by my generation, through intermarriage, most of us had become Greek Orthodox. But these meals, and a few other Jewish traditions, remain alive in my family.”
Bourthetto was the main course of a fabulous Sephardic Greek meal that George Cami, and his beautiful wife, Irene, served a group of us recently. It was, in a word, scrumptious. Spicy, but not too much so. The meat of the fish soft and moist from the tomatoes, onions, and olive oil in which it was cooked.
Traditionally, George told me, a white ocean fish is used in this dish, so he used Atlantic Bass, a delicacy in itself.
It turns out that many common Greek dishes are actually Sephardic in origin, like melitzanna salata (eggplant dip/salad) and ground lamb dolmades (meat and rice cooked inside grape leaves). In fact, in some regions of Greece, meat-and-rice-filled dolmades are still called by their original Ladino (Sephardic language) name, yaprakes finos.
Although Cami already has grape leaves stuffed with rice on the Aegean Breeze menu, he is planning on adding warm yaprakes finos topped with an egg-lemon sauce soon. Just in time for the holidays!
Bourthetto (Fish in Spicy Sauce) (Serves four)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chili flakes, or less to taste
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup chopped tomatoes
½ cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
4 1-pound whole firm-fleshed fish, such as snapper, cleaned and scaled
1. Heat the olive oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and chili flakes. Sauté until the onions begin to turn translucent.
2. Add the tomato paste and sauté for an additional 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, water, and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and add the whole fish to the pot. Cover, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
4. After 20 minutes, carefully remove the fish to a serving platter. Try not to break the fish.
5. If sauce is too thin, allow to simmer uncovered for an additional 10 minutes or until thickened, but not dry. Spoon the sauce over the fish and serve with rice or potatoes.