What’s Anchovy?

FR: Anchois

GER: Anschovis

IT: Acciuga, Alice

SP: Anchoa, Anchova

BOT: Engraulis encrasicholus

FAM: Engraulidae

The anchovy is a small fish, with a dark blue back and silver underneath, found in the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic coasts of southern Europe. (What is called the Norwegian anchovy or kilkis is another fish.) Although they will grow to eight inches long, the usual size is nearer three inches. Fresh anchovies are often on sale in Mediterranean fish markets and the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal. The fresh fish is excellent, with white flesh and good flavour, but it gives no indication whatever of the special anchovy flavour which develops after curing. This special flavour, together with the red-brown colour, is formed after several months of pickling in salt and is the result of fermentative changes. The preparation of salted anchovies and other fermented fish products has been understood for thousands of years in the Mediterranean area. (See Fishy Flavours.)

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For people who live where anchovies are landed (they are fished with lights in quantity from March to September), curing is simple. In the local markets, wide straight-sided lidless glass jars made especially for the purpose are sold. After buying the jar, one visits the beach to find a flat stone that will just fit into the top. The fresh anchovies have to be cleaned by removing the head and entrails (fishmongers’ daughters will usually oblige). The anchovies are now packed firmly in layers in the jar, each layer being well-sprinkled with coarse salt, the weight of the salt being usually about a quarter of that of the anchovies. When salting is completed, the stone is placed on top. This acts as a weight to keep the fish sunk below the surface of the brine, which will gradually form as the salt extracts the juices from the fish. Often a mouldy crust grows on top but this can be removed later and is of no importance. The anchovies will be ready after a few months and will have acquired the typical anchovy colour and flavour. They can then be split without difficulty into two fillets and the backbone removed.

Anchovies made in this way are the plain salted anchovies, the best to use in cooking after desalting them a little in water. Unfortunately, they are difficult to obtain in northern Europe and North America where anchovies canned in oil are more commonly stocked. A third form of anchovy is dry salted, but this usually acquires slightly rancid flavours which might possibly be needed in some local dishes but which most people will not find particularly pleasant. As for the anchovy pastes, sauces and essences, these are almost always inferior in flavour, oversalted – to preserve them – and coloured with such things as Armenian bole (a red clay). In Victorian England it was common practice to lard meat with anchovies, and to use anchovies almost as if they were a kind of salt, because in small quantities they blend well into almost any savoury background and give a richer flavour without being obvious or prominent. Anchovy sauce and anchovy butter were popular accompaniments not only to fish dishes but even to beef and mutton. I have recorded a recipe labelled discreetly ‘haggis (English)’ which contains anchovies as part of the spicing for the oatmeal and lights. They also went into pork pies.

Those people who like anchovies will have no difficulty in finding dozens of ways of eating them There are recipes coming from all parts of Europe. Not only anchovy fillets marinated in oil but also de-salted fillets are a common hors d’oeuvre to be eaten with bread and butter. From Belgium and Holland I use a recipe for anchovy fillets marinated in wine vinegar with thin slices of onion and slivers of lemon rind. They make a delicious accompaniment to vodka. In Italy, I have eaten anchovy fillets spread with a tomato sauce flavoured with white truffles. In England, there is anchovy toast and in France anchoiade and beignets of anchovies de-salted and fried in batter. Anchovies go well with cheese and in Italy are frequently used as a garnish for pizzas, in which the garnish adds important islands of flavour, and in dishes such as crostini di mozzarella or provatura cheese. Anchovies go with black olives and capers as in the tapenade of the South of France in which they are all pounded into a ‘spread’ with brandy, mountain thyme, bay, and a dash of wine vinegar. Anchovies and garlic together make up the famous bagna cauda of Piedmont which consists of anchovies and finely chopped garlic melted in a mixture of butter and olive oil. This highly indigestible sauce is kept warm at table either in a communal dish over a small spirit lamp or in individual earthen pots with a night-light underneath (but the words do not mean ‘hot bath’). Pieces of raw vegetables, particularly cardoon, are dipped into this sauce which is traditionally perfumed with slices of white truffle, though in my own opinion this is a waste of truffle.

A jar of plain salted anchovies, which keep almost indefinitely provided they remain covered by liquid, should be on the shelf in every kitchen. Even the liquid is used as a flavouring. It is unfortunate that they are at present difficult to get but perhaps persistent demand would alter the situation.

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