Food & Drink: Black looks, black cooks

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Proof, if proof were needed, that US academia has been completely secularised is provided by the 'spring break'. Formerly known as Easter, this is an annual migration by university students, and those who cannot afford to go somewhere more exotic wind up in Florida, which has a lot of mangrove swamps, undeveloped land, rickety motels, convenience stores and, if they are lucky, sunshine.

Exhausted by snowfall that seems to have lasted since Clinton got himself elected, I have just followed suit. However, being a sophisticated traveller and a professor, I do not go where others go, certainly not where students go. I stay on an island off the Atlantic coast of Florida, near Jacksonville.

Amelia Island was once a rail-head, and a century ago attracted some of the very rich, who left behind their Victorian houses, manicured gardens, and even a civilised taste in food.

It was here, at the Crab Trap restaurant, which is hardly fancy but fed me exceedingly well, that I was introduced to Cajun cooking. Now, like everyone else, I have had the odd blackened chicken breast, but until last week I cannot say I had really got into this backwoods-Louisiana form of cooking.

Richard Germano, a chunky, youngish man, bought the place last year and has been pretty successful. It is a biggish, two-storey piece of brick not far from the docks. On one wall is what I took to be a real marlin some 20ft long and glistening, and on the other, behind the bar (indifferent wines), is a vaguely Italian landscape. You eat at chunky tables with a hole in the middle, handy for getting rid of paper napkins and crab claws, and you are served, as you are throughout the island, by extremely fetching young ladies. They have brilliant smiles, and the kind of good cheer that is the dead opposite of the moribund, aggrieved pretension that prevails in service elsewhere.

In the kitchen are three blacks: Billy, Jimmy and Incognito. Billy is the boss cook, but Jimmy is the artist. His blackened sea bass was one of the best things I have eaten in a long while.

Blackening, which is the base of Cajun food, is achieved with nothing more than a highly spiced beurre noir and a huge skillet which serves all night and gradually accumulates burnt butter, spices and heat. The basic spices are celery salt, garlic salt, paprika and cayenne pepper. (And do not wrinkle your nose at those 'prepared' spices: try using real garlic and you will have blackened garlic and no flavour.) When the butter is properly blackened and spiced, apply the sea bass or whatever, and when it is crispy on one side, turn it and do the same to the other. This takes 3-4 minutes and is a very inexact science, as is the spicing. But a good cook will know just when it is done, remembering that a good fresh fish is never overcooked.

Jimmy's particular art, which is that of any good cook, is to understand that the ideal for this method is the contrast between a highly (but not cruelly) spiced exterior and a succulent, white, moist, firm-fleshed interior (which is not what happens at phoney-Cajun restaurants, where blackened means charred and tasting only of Tabasco). Good blackened fish, like the spiceless but heavily capered raie au beurre noir of my youth, is sauteed gently, not fried to death; the skill lies in having just enough juice to allow the fish to cook and not be martyred.

Anyone can make this dish, as they can the Crab Trap's other specialities: the boiled crabs in something like a gumbo broth, and the seafood pasta, linguini with clams, crab, oysters and a tomato sauce derived from Richard's memory of ancestral Sicily. To which he should, of course, have added the fresh capers that make the Sicilian marinara Sicilian. He tells me he will.

The Crab Trap, N. 2nd Street, Fernandina, Amelia Island. dollars 20 (about pounds 13) with wine.

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