The fire room

Written by  Daniello Zamboni
The remarkable story of Comacchio's ancient fish processing factory, behind the Capuchin monastery.
In 1905, the food processing company Bonaiuto Vitali & Co. built a magnificent factory on the strip of "land behind the Capuchin monastery" on the far western edge of the town of Comacchio, without any impact on the city; indeed it blended into the urban landscape. At the heart of this factory is the 'sala dei fuochi' (the 'fire rooms' which house the great ovens), and it is now reported to be in a pristine condition, and closer to its original state than it was after a recent restoration, which was not handled entirely competently.

The building is the only one remaining of the thousands of traditional fish processing factories which existed throughout the Comacchio valleys. It is a wonderful living testament to Italy's industrial architectural history, a reminder of a now-vanished world in which the valleys' network of waterways, and the material and spiritual life of the people - their work, economy, culture, religion, the whole urban set-up - were intricately linked.

In a general sense, it is not the physical work of the processing industry which has favoured its conservation. It is an ancient industry, and almost as well known as the practice of fishing itself, and Comacchio's reputation rests equally on both.
The process has remained practically unchanged for hundreds of years, from the 16th century up to the last century, when the great land drainage and reclamation schemes reduced the lagoons to less than 10,000 hectares, and fishing ceased to be Comacchio's sole industry.

This marinating process is probably the product of successive transformations over time of a marinated fish sauce used in Roman times, known as garum. Towards the end of the 19th century the traditional fish processing industry remained an activity apart from the business of the valleys and the fishing industry; it was practically a monopoly of the so called "traditional manufacturers" whose interests were protected by meticulous and strict edicts which continue more or less unchanged to the present day.
Governments may come and go, but these policies remain the same: most recently, the 'Galli' law (which governs the organisation of water supply) can be seen as a continuation of this, ensuring the continuation of the business empire even today.

Protection of these traditional fish processing companies is closely allied with the suppression of fish poaching: the freedom to cook or marinate or otherwise process eels would have actually increased theft, given their usefulness as a commodity, and their easy accessibility, in addition to the impossibility of effective surveillance and policing of all of the numerous and remote factories. Not only that, but the proliferation of traditional fish processors outside Comacchio would have led to a "marinade" going onto the market which had none of the finesse, taste and quality associated with that of the Comacchio region.

The traditional artisans' factories are scattered across the city: it's not possible to put them elsewhere: in Comacchio dry land is at a premium, and it is completely surrounded by water. In 1853 there were 21 traditional fish processors. From the time of the first tenancy, after the retrocession of the valleys from the State to the local authority, began a gradual "concentration of the business of fish marinating into the hands of the valley's 'gentlemen artisan leaseholders'" which was concluded in 1888, when, during the lease to Luigi Bellini (1884 ? 1890), "all the manufacturing is concentrated in the hands of one owner and under one roof", i.e. the kitchen' for this "grandiose establishment for the marinating of eels" which Luigi Bellini built next to the Trepponto bridge, in the grounds of his palazzo.
Luigi Bellini's plant remained the "Comacchio Valley Factory" right up its purchase in 1905 by the aforementioned Bonaiuto Vitali & Co, commercial agent, effectively purchasing all the available fish swimming in Comacchio's lagoons. On taking over this industrial complex behind the Capuchin monastery, the company drew together on one site their administrative headquarters, the owner's house, the fish marinating plant, all the cooking facilities, including the spit roasting house...and the market selling fresh fish.
The choice of location is unavoidable, being the only available piece of land: all around it is water, and as it is close to the waters', it is easily accessible via the canal network which surrounds and intersects the area and links it to the valleys.
Everything in the restored and re-opened factory is as it was in the past: it is only missing only the barrels and churns.

Once cooked, the fish are carefully layered in tin cans; finally they are sprinkled with a special mix of salt and vinegar, carefully measured so as to be completely absorbed by the contents. Once this step is complete, a few bay leaves are added and the cans are sealed.

From these simple surroundings, so the story goes, two townsmen travelled from the tiny and isolated community of Comacchio all the way to Vienna, where the leaders of the time were in congress (1815) discussing how best to organise Europe after the ravages of the Napoleonic wars.

The reason for their mission was that vexed question which continued to concern the Comacchio area: it was feared the conference was discussing its 1797 acquisition. To encourage the benevolence of the new leaders the two ambassadors took with them 12 barrels of the biggest and best eels: eight for the King of France, and four for Austria's Prince Klemens von Metternich. At Schönbrunn they were presented, wrapped in gold and silver paper.

What more precious gift could they give than this? It symbolised not only the labour but also the hope of a community which for millennia had worked in close harmony with the valley's network of waterways, succeeding in transforming it into a "factory" producing food from a true system "farming" the waters.