Anchovies

A Mediterranian Classic

Excluding EVOO and salt, which I consider indispensable, I adore anchovies! I know, I can almost hear you “too fishy, too salty, there are bones, it stinks.” Cheap overly salted products have that intense, fishy, salty flavor that has given them a bad reputation. Maybe you just don’t know how to buy and use them. My goal is to dispel their bad reputation. I have several tips for introducing you to this delicious flavor, and just maybe I can get you to eat them straight from the can/jar (like me).
 
In Italy, anchovies are split into 2 categories: acciughe refers to cured anchovies, and alice are fresh.  They belong to a group of oily fish that the Italians call pesce azzuro because of their deep blue-green color, with silvery grey sides.  They are smaller than a sardine, usually about 1-4 inches in length, and have the distinguishing feature of a projecting upper jaw.  Anchovies are found in temperate waters, and they school in brackish areas such as bays and estuaries. In Italy, the most famous anchovies are from Campania, Sicily, Liguria, and Sardinia.
 
Because of their size and oil content, fresh anchovies do not travel well and are not widely available outside the Mediterranean. If you find fresh anchovies, you can tell that they have been out of the sea too long if their back turns from blue to black.  Enjoy them as you would fresh sardines – grilled and eaten simply with salt, oil, and lemon.
 
Anchovies are a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins niacin, riboflavin, and Vitamin B12. Due to their small size, they are lower in mercury than larger fish.  They also have what scientists and food experts call “umami,” an often described “savory” taste, beyond salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami can also be found naturally in foods such as some meats, mushrooms, seaweed, truffles, tomatoes, and soy sauce.

Important things to note when buying anchovies

Most of the anchovies caught are preserved. Except for the “white anchovies” packed in a vinegar marinade, the other methods of preserving with salt will turn the flesh that familiar reddish-brown hue.

Acchiughe sotto sale:

Anchovies preserved in salt and sold from barrels or large tins. Salt-packed anchovies are a revelation and worth seeking as their flavor is the truest of all cured anchovies. They’re bigger and meatier than oil-packed anchovies, and they have a more mellow, fuller flavor. A common imported brand is labeled Agostino Recca – Acciughe Salate –  from Sicily. A good Salumeria will sell them out of a 5-kilo tin.

How to fillet and store salt-packed anchovies (see photos below): Salt-packed anchovies must be rinsed and filleted before they can be used, and their superior flavor makes it well worth it! Rinse under cold running water to dislodge the salt. This will also soften the fish, making them easier to fillet. Under slow running water, holding the rinsed anchovy belly side up, run your finger from the head to the tail and dislodge the viscera. Then separate the fillets, and expose the backbone. Lift the backbone and lateral pin bones away from the fillet and discard the bones. Lay the rinsed fillets on an absorbent towel to dry. Taste the anchovies and if they’re still too salty, soak them in water or milk for about 20 minutes. Pack the fillets in a glass jar and cover them with olive oil. Store in a cool dry place.

Goni at the Salumeria Italiana with salt-cured anchovies
Anchovies packed in salt
Filleting the rinsed anchovy
Deboning the anchovy
Anchovies filleted and drying
Anchovies stored under olive oil

Filletti di acchiuga sott'olio

Anchovies are skinned, filleted, and preserved under oil in glass jars or tin cans. Glass jars will allow you to see the fillets so that you can pick the meatiest. They are also sometimes rolled around capers. Choose a brand that’s packed in olive oil (rather than vegetable oil). Taste the anchovies and if you find them too salty soak them in cold water for about 15 minutes. Drain and pat dry with paper towels before using.

Once the container is opened, any unused anchovies should be stored in a tightly covered glass jar, covered with at least a half-inch of olive oil on top, and refrigerate. Cured anchovies tend to develop an unpleasant fishy aroma if left exposed to the air. Anchovies can be refrigerated for at least 2 months.

Anchovy fillets at Salumeria Italiana
Anchovy products at Polcari’s Coffee
Anchovy pate and fillets at Salumeria Italiana

Alici Marinate

“White anchovies” at Bricco Salumeria

White anchovies – boneless fillets packed in oil, salt, spices, and white wine vinegar marinade (refrigerated). They are milder in flavor and the pickling process turns them bright white.

 

Pasta d'acciuga

A silky, creamy, earthy brown paste made from pureed anchovies, olive oil, and salt. It comes in toothpaste-like tubes and can be easily used to anoint grilled or oven-roasted fish, pork, lamb, beef, or chicken; mix into fish soups and stews; or stir into salad dressings. Anchovy paste tends to be a bit saltier, so take this into consideration when seasoning. One-half teaspoon of anchovy paste is equivalent to 1 anchovy

Colatura di alici

Known as garum in the Roman era, it is a highly prized, expensive seasoned liquid made from salted anchovies. The process used today for making colatura is particularly laborious. It begins in May when the anchovies have reached a good size. After harvesting, the heads and innards of the freshly caught anchovies are removed by hand and then left for about 12 hours in tubs containing a mixture of salt and water. They are then drained and stacked in oak or chestnut barrels, layered with salt, covered, held down with weights, and left for 9-12 months to “mature.” As the anchovies ferment, the salt draws the moisture out of the fish, and that liquid collects in a pool at the bottom of the barrel (the verb colare means to drip). The barrel’s bottom is then pierced, drained, and the liquid anchovy essence is filtered through cloth, then jarred and left to rest in the sun to evaporate the water. The liquid is then often poured back into the wooden barrels over the curing anchovies to further increase the depth of flavor. 

Colatura can range in color and pungency depending on how long the anchovies are cured for – from light yellow to deep amber.  Good colatura has a pungent, savory fish flavor,  complex, slightly salty with wonderful notes of umami and sweetness. It is only produced in small quantities – each barrel, filled with 20 kilos of anchovies, produces about 2 liters of colatura

If you see it on a shelf, grab it, you won’t be disappointed.  Make a salsetta by mixing a few tablespoons of EVOO with a clove or two of crushed garlic and a teaspoon or so of colatura. This “little sauce” is great on spaghetti or linguine as well as fish and any vegetable. I love it with sauteed escarole or chicory. You can also enhance the salsetta with cherry tomatoes, minced parsley, or a little crushed pepper. Other ingredients that go well with colatura are olives, capers, walnuts, and oregano. Remember to go easy on the salt; colatura is salty by nature. Actually, it’s the secret ingredient to most of my dishes. When you are cooking a savory dish and tasting tells you something is needed, add a splash of colatura – and your dish will be transformed!

Colatura and anchovies at Bricco Salumeria Pasta Shop
Colatura and anchovies at Monica’s Pasta Shop
Colatura in a spray bottle and regular bottle at Salumeria Italiana

Anchovy products can be purchased in the following North End Shops:

Bricco Salumeria and Pasta Shop, 11 Board Alley, Boston

Monica’s Pasta Shop, 139 Richmond Street, Boston

Polcari’s Coffee, 105 Salem Street, Boston

Salumeria Italiana, 151 Richmond Street, Boston