Italian gravlax salmon crostini with pickled watermelon


A lovely recipe for your weekend, especially if you’re first foray into salmon gravlax or salt cured salmon. As things get a little chilly in Southern Tuscany, I’m not ready to give up the big bright flavours of summer just yet. There will be plenty of time for soups and casseroles when I can’t feel my toes and my radiators pack up, which they do absolutely every winter.

If you’ve never cured salmon or you’re a little bit worried about buying a fish and leaving in the fridge for a couple of days, don’t worry. As long as you pack it with plenty of salt and sugar, your fish won’t turn slimy. Instead it’ll be lightly cooked and turn a delicious shade of bright orange. It’ll also lose a lot of that really fishy taste that some people don’t like and take on the flavours of the sugar and whatever aromatics you use to season it.

Traditionally, gravlax is a Nordic dish. You might also know it as cured salmon lox. It’s most definitely not an Italian seafood recipe, since it’s flavoured with vodka, juniper berries and dill. But there’s no reason why you can’t give it an Italian spin.

So earlier in the week, I went to our local pescheria or our local fish shop. We only have one and it’s only open three days a week. That sounds crazy, right? But we’re not a seaside town and in Italy, fresh is everything. Since we’re almost an hour from the closest fishing port, our fish comes sparingly and seasonally. Most locals would prefer nothing to the frozen supermarket seafood we’re used to overseas.

Only a couple of years ago, we didn’t even have a fishmongers. We had a small mobile truck that would putter into town every Friday and Saturday (traditional fish eating days). If you wanted fresh fish, you had to get up early and get in quick because the mamas and nonnas don’t wait for people who sleep in. Often Giulio and I would be left with the scraps – anchovies!

When the little old man who drove the fish truck retired, his son decided to put down roots and open a shop in town. It’s still first in, first served, but you can sometimes phone ahead and request that a portion of salmon be lovingly cleaned, deboned and set aside for pick up just before closing time at 12pm. It’s all beautifully provincial, one of the last remaining institutions in our small town.

My salmon was wrapped up in white wax paper when I arrived to pick it up and I chatted with the fishmonger’s wife to see what sort of aromatics she recommended. I didn’t tell her what I was making though – she would have thought I was nuts.

We settled on fennel seeds and fennel tops, the quintessential Tuscan herbs, which infuses the fish with both savoury earthiness and a bright almost medicinal liquorice flavour and lemon zest. When I got home, I added freshly ground black pepper and a hint of coriander, which is actually very common in Southern Tuscany and brings a warm spiciness.

And since I can’t do things by halves, I threw together a quick pickled radish and watermelon salad to artfully arrange on top of your salmon crostini. This salad is packed with fresh chilli and grapefruit juice to bring out the flavour of the salmon, but also awaken the tastebuds since this dish is designed to be served with aperitivo or pre-drinks. With that in mind, serve it with a really crisp Maremman white wine like a Bianco di Pitigliano, Vermentino or even a Rosè.

Italian gravlax salmon crostini with pickled watermelon

500g salmon fillet, skin on
100g course sea salt
75g white sugar
bunch of fennel tops, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon each coriander and fennel seeds
1 lemon, zest only, peeled with a potato peeler

Quick pickled watermelon and radish salad
2 radishes, grated with a microplane
1/4 cup watermelon, finely diced
1/2 cup grapefruit juice

Tuscan bread, sliced and toasted in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil, to serve
green chilli, finely sliced, to serve
fennel tops, extra, to serve
extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Put the salmon skin-side down, on a large sheet of cling film. Combine the remaining ingredients and scatter all over and under the fish, rubbing it in with your fingers to make sure it’s well coated. Tightly wrap in more cling film and place in a small tray. Weigh your fish down with another tray or something heavy, this helps the fish cure more evenly and allows the flavours to penetrate. Refrigerate for 2 days, turning the fish every 12 hours.

Remove the gravlax from the brine and wipe off the salt and seasoning with a paper towel. Slice into very thin slivers and set aside.

To make your pickled watermelon and radish salad, combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, season with salt and pepper and set aside for at least 15 minutes to let the flavours develop.

To assemble your crostini, place a few slices of gravlax on your toasted bread. Top with a handful of the picked salad, a few bits of chilli and a scattering of extra fennel top and lemon zest.

Repeat until you have enough tasty morsels to feed a crowd! The remaining gravlax salmon, should sit happily in the fridge in a sealed container for 3 days.

If you want to try another great Italian fish recipe, check out my baccalà (salt cod) dip. 

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