Anchovies aren’t to everyone’s taste, but I’ve always been smitten by these delicious, silvery slivers of fish. Like artichokes, lemons, good oil and quality chocolate, they’re a humble ingredient that steal the limelight when allowed to shine.
Whether it’s for biological or social reasons, many of us develop likes and dislikes of certain foods as children, and these can continue into adulthood. Salted anchovies, with their abundance of umami, are challenging for young palates, and can be divisive among grown-ups too. Personally, however, I find anchovies delicious in all their guises, from sea-fresh to tinned and salty.
I remember the sense of incredulity I felt at school on learning that garum, a fermented fish sauce, was a cornerstone of the ancient Roman kitchen. What I didn’t realise was that garum lives on — in fish sauce, shrimp paste, Worcestershire sauce and salted anchovies themselves.
Anchovies are so delicate that if they’re to be eaten fresh they must be consumed soon after they’ve been landed — so fried, grilled or freshly pickled anchovies are a hallmark of coastal life and holidays. Inland, preserved varieties offer a culinary connection to the sea. As a child, guzzling anchovies in fritto misto or on pizza, I didn’t consider any of this. I just ate them because they were delicious, which is the only reason to eat anything.
Using your fingertips, remove the heads and intestines from fresh anchovies. Season the fish with salt, dust in a mixture of flour and semolina, then deep fry in clean, hot (180C) oil for one minute, until just golden.
Fillet fresh anchovies with your fingers. Salt for 15 mins, then marinate with red onion, parsley, chilli, red wine vinegar, a dash of water and a touch more salt until they’re semi-opaque. Drain and dress with extra virgin olive oil.
Soak really good-quality anchovy fillets (Cantabrian are best) in water for 10 mins to plump them up before serving with buttered bread, on pan con tomate, or with finely chopped parsley, garlic and olive oil.
4. Bagna càuda
Mix equal quantities of butter, cream, olive oil and garlic with a double quantity of anchovy fillets and a little lemon zest. Cook, covered, in a bain-marie for an hour or two until tender, then blend. Dip anything in the sauce.
The simplest way to ‘lose’ anchovies is in pasta aglio e olio. Fry garlic gently in oil, add a little chilli, then some chopped anchovy fillets. Stir off the heat until the fillets melt, then toss in the pasta, some parsley and a little cooking water.
Published in the summer 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food
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