Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lunch in Bizerte -- Miranda, you won't like this!

So after two hours at the beach we went back to the old port for lunch, which turned into a central event of the day.

We went shopping for our food first, starting at the outdoor meat market. I have never seen so many stripped red carcasses on hooks or piled blobs of rippled tripe or grey bladders and balls strung up in my life at stand after kiosk of meat store. And nearly every one had a huge bull's head someplace on a counter or in a bowl, the black hair in startling contrast to bright red blood. I wondered if they were there mostly for tourists and wished that my camera battery hadn't died right then because I could have tortured my weak-stomached Bosnian friend Miranda with art from this place.

If sight was assaulted in the meat market, smell was the sense slammed at the fish market, a huge low building of tile kept wet by dripping ice and hoses spraying down a huge array of fish fresh from the Med. I didn't recognize most of the species, but it was easy to make my choice -- I chose the table under which a very happy cat was gnawing a snagged fish body. We got two kilos of sardines, shrimp and dorado for like 14 dinars -- 12 dollars maybe.

Then we took two dripping plastic bags of fishy stuff to the restaurant. I'd tell you the name but it didn't have one. "Just traditional restaurant," Zied told me helpfully. It was a tiny place near the fish market with four formica tables set out on the sidewalk and street and three rickety grills that looked like keyboards lined up at the curb. Playing the smoking keyboards was an old man, his son was the whirlwind matre d', his young sons were waiters and bus boys, his daughters dish washers.

They sent us back to the fish market.

We'd neglected to get the fish cleaned and gutted.

That accomplished, the old man took our bag and lined up our fish on the grills while at the formica table we got a plastic basket of french bread and bowls of black olives in spicy red harissa and eggplant in olive oil. The scent of the grilling meat and fish and the appetizers overwhelmed me -- and also three sleek calico cats who obviously have learned how to beg in this place. I tried sending an SMS to Del to rub in what he was missing.

Waiting for our fish, we were provided with what was almost dinner theater. A man in his 60s, stooped and in sandals pushing a big plastic sack in the skeleton of an old baby stroller stopped by our table. He reached in the sack and pulled out two shiny black shells. He was selling mussels for nearly nothing. Had there been any way to deal with them in my hotel room, I would have bought some. Other diners certainly did. He pushed his stroller off with an empty sack counting his few dinars with one hand.

Another raggedy man in broken shoes walked back and forth with an armload of what looked like leafy sticks. He had thyme, which I recognized, but I don't know what the sticks were and Zied didn't know in any of the three languages he has an acquaintance with. The sticks weren't selling as well as the mussels, so he went across the street. I watched him thrusting the branches into the space of every couple that passed him.

The griller and his son kept yelling at each other about how the fish should be arranged o the grill and it was so busy they kept forgetting which fish belonged to who as they took it off the coals. Good thing there were only four tables as they frequently went to all of them holding out platters so diners could identify their animals. And they look a lot different cooked, so this wasn't always fast. The young boys alternately ran off and came back with armloads of baquettes, or they hauled out a dusty bucket for emptying dead charcoal and reloading the grills as customers at the tables changed.

I probably hardly need add here, I suspect, that the fish fresh from the Med and the grill was delicious.

You just shucked the shrimp and left the shells on the table in a heap along with bread crumbs and olive pits and dig into the fish with your fingers. There's a sink and a bar of soap inside for a reason. It was so good, I felt a little guilty slipping a sardine to the calicos.

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