Just call me anchovy.

My second name, after my granny, is Alice. The Italian for anchovy is acciuga or alice.

I was devoted to anchovies long before I came to Italy. When I say anchovies, I am of course talking about preserved ones – I was in England remember – fresh anchovies like the ones above, came much later. The anchovies I knew were imported from Italy or Spain, fresh from the sea once, but subsequntly gutted, brined, matured and the curious pinky-brown fillets packed in salt, or more commonly olive oil. We bought anchovies in olive oil, neatly tucked into slim, oblong tins with a key and a roll back top.

My devotion, my taste for little salty fish actually began a few years before the slim tins, when I was a small girl. It began with a pot, my Dad’s pot, of Gentlemen’s Relish. Gentlemen’s Relish for those of you who aren’t acquainted with this marvelous concoction, is a paste of anchovies, butter, herbs and spices also known as Patum Peperium. It was created in 1828 by an Englishman called John Osborn. It comes in a very particular round, squat pot – that used to be ceramic but sadly nowadays is made of plastic. The paste is a dull greyish brown but has the most wonderfully distinctive flavour; strong, salty and hardly surprisingly, a heady fishy taste. My Dad used to have it – he still does – on toast. Just as I write in my parents kitchen in London, my Dad, sitting across the kitchen doing the crossword, is peering over the top of the newspaper, brow furrowed and insisting in the same voice he adopts when talking about the perfect cup of tea or the best bitter orange marmalade. “Quite thin slices now, you don’t want great big thick doorsteps. no, no. You want thin slices of hot buttered toast onto which you spread a cautious layer of Gentlemans Relish“. Gentlemens Relish is also title of the terrific BBC drama about the Victorian painter, pornographer and photographer Kingdom Swann. But I digress.

When my first proper boyfriend pulled a face at the anchovy on his pizza, it cast a big black cloud over our future. Could I really go out, could I even like never mind love, a boy who didn’t like anchovies?  The relationship ended soon after, there were clearly irreconcilable differences. It was amicable but we haven’t remained friends.

I was thinking about this post as I walked across the park yesterday, on my way to teach small Italian children English songs. It stuck me that anchovies are indispensable, that they are the splendid and intensely savoury seasoning in many of our favourite things. Vincenzo calls them le palle (the balls). They appear in green sauce (salsa verde), on pizza marinara and pizza Napoli and in Salad Niçoise. Anchovies are the kick in the heady dressing for Puntarelle, the punch in tapenade and the oompapa in montpellier butter. Draped over hard-boiled eggs, melted into butter for bagna cauda, tucked into courgette flowers along with mozzarella, with roast lamb, squashed on bread and butter, great things all of them. Anchovies melted in olive oil provide the distinctive foundation for four of my favourite pastas; pasta e brocolli, Pasta alla puttanescaSpaghetti with tomato and anchovy sauce and Pasta with sardines and anchovy breadcrumbs.

And then there are fresh anchovies.

I’d never seen fresh anchovies until I came to Italy, or perhaps I had – after all they are not unheard of in The UK and we had enough French holidays –  I just hadn’t noticed. I spotted anchovies at the fish market in Naples first, it must have been my second or third day in Italy so everything was still a blur. I saw vast crates of them in Palermo and Messina, but it was in the fish market in Catania, early one morning, where I had my first close encounter of the fresh anchovy kind.

The fish market in Catania is a crude, noisy, rough and raw place. All my romantic notions about wandering through a Sicilian fish market at the crack of dawn were washed away with the bucket of bloody, murky fish water that was thrown, hurled rather, in front of my feet into a dark drain. But it’s an extraordinary place, full of life and soul, blood – and quite literally – guts. And of course, there is fish. There aren’t really stalls as such, a wooden bench here and another there. On one, a vast belly or side of tuna, beside it, a man brandishing a knife. On another table half a swordfish, sword skyward, as sharp as the knife hovering over it. There’s a man on a little stool, around him boxes of calamari and tiny neonati, like frogspawn and opposite him a woman with a baskets of tiny Calamaretti and moscardini. A very tall man presides over a table awash with sliver sardines, shining like newly minted coins. On a more orderly table sit lines of handsome, silver bream, Spigola, rose-red mullets and beside them, like something out of 2000 leagues under the sea, a disconcertingly large octopus. There are mysterious, foreboding but fascinating fish, unfamiliar to my English eyes. The curious, spiky, sea urchins ricci di mare make me shudder with delight. There are unruly piles of scampi, fat, grey and tempting but sallow next to piles of brilliantly coloured pinky-orange prawns. Nearby another man is crouched beside a plastic mat bestrewn with a vast, sprawling, shimmering heap of small, slender, slivery-blue anchovies.

Fresh anchovies have fragrant, delicately flavoured flesh. They are related to sardines and mackeral and have the same firm, slightly oily flesh but a notably milder flavour. Their size – they are generally about 3′ or 4″ long – means they are more tender and delicate. I have learned to prepare and cook anchovies with Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela. They are her speciality.

First the cleaning. Anchovies are a great way to get to grips with gutting and preparing fish if like me, you’re a novice. Along with artichoke taming and mixing the perfect batter, preparing these lovely little fish is one of the most satisfying kitchen skills I have acquired in the last couple of years. This may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. Sleeves up and no fuss! Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish – fanning it out like a butterfly – ready for the next stage.

As with preserved anchovies, Italians love, respect and do marvelous things with fresh ones. They grill them just so, they coat them with batter and plunge them into hot oil, they dip them in egg and then breadcrumbs and shallow fry them until crisp and golden. Our friend stuffs them with a mixture of breadcrumbs, herbs and parmesan, sprinkles them with olive oil and bakes them in the oven. Carmella fans them out; like the spokes of a wheel, in a shallow pan, sprinkles over olive oil and parsley, then cooks them very gently so they fry and steam at the same time. Delicious stuff.

But maybe one of the nicest ways to enjoy the delicate flesh of fresh anchovies is to marinade them in lemon juice, a slosh of red wine vinegar, olive oil and finely chopped garlic for about 5 hours. The acid in the lemon and vinegar literally cooks the flesh, turning it opaque and rendering it firm, tender and sweet. To serve, you pour over more olive oil, sprinkle over some finely chopped parsley and maybe a little crushed chilli. They are best eaten as an antipasti or simple lunch, nudging the fillets onto the corner of some crusty bread, mopping up the oily juices with more bread as you go.

There are many ways to make alici marinate, which are worth exploring if you like anchovies. Meanwhile to begin, this is Carmela’s recipe adapted by me.

The anchovies will keep for a few days but they are best made in the morning for lunch, or early in the afternoon in time for supper. These are one of my favourite things.

Marinated anchovies (Alici marinati)

Serves 3 for a light lunch with plenty of bread and green salad or 5 as a starter.

  • 500g fresh anchovies
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • The juice of two lemons
  • A generous 1/2 cup or 150ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • a pinch of crushed dried peperoncino / chilli

First clean and prepare the anchovies; Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish ready for the next stage.

In a bowl mix the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic.

In a shallow glass or ceramic dish, large enough to accomodate half the anchovy fillets in a single layer, arrange half the anchovies – they will be quite delicate. Then pour over half the marinade. Arrange the second layer on top of the first and pour over the remaining marinade.

Cover the dish with clingfilm and allow it sit for at least 5 hours before serving. This is best done at room temperature, but if it is very hot, slide the dish in the fridge for 4 1/2 hours and pull out for the last 30 minutes.

Before serving, sprinkle over the parsley and pepperoncino (chilli) and pour over a little more oil. Bring the dish to the table and encourage people to serve themselves reminding them to spoon over some of the marinade to mop up with bread.

44 Comments

Filed under antipasti, fish, food, rachel eats Italy, recipes

44 responses to “Just call me anchovy.

  1. These fresh anchovies look fabulous! Men who turn their noses up at anchovies don’t interest me either. I’ve never heard of this Gentleman’s Relish. My father would love it! He’s a strong and salty kind of guy. I’ll have to find some for him.

  2. Your words have vividly brought to life the world of the Sicilian fish market. I felt as if I was right there with you. I, too, have loved anchovies since I was a child. But, I have never had the pleasure of eating a fresh one. Great post, Rachel.

    • rachel

      Michele, writing it brought back such vivid memories. I have a diary of that time and I’d forgotten how crude and raw it all was. I’m sure the guy was trying to throw the fish water at my legs. Fantastic place though.

  3. johanna

    wow those look gorgeous (and delicious.) i really love anchovies and wish i lived in rome and could buy fresh ones!

  4. What a brilliant recipe for fresh anchovies! True Italian flavour at it’s best. Super yummy! The anticipation of waiting for them to mature in the marinade get my taste-buds dancing. :-) Mandy

  5. I’m sure I’m not the first to day this but I just discovered your diary and I absolutely love it! Your descriptions, photos, and stories are so much fun to read. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Cheers,
    Kristen

    • rachel

      Thats nice of you to say Kirsten (even nicer that you are saying his about a anchovy post, not a pretty cake – hooray).Nice to have you here

  6. Mmmm, those look incredible! I really wish fresh anchovies were available here in New Zealand – but no such luck… I’ll have to stick with the tinned sort. I might try making some ‘Ladies Relish’ (forget the Gentlemen!) :-)

  7. I love anchovies much to my husband’s disgust! You should try Jamie Oliver’s lamb shank recipe that uses anchovies – a firm family favourite here.

  8. We prepare anchovies the exact same way in Greece. I love the flavor and smell (weird I know) of marinated anchovies. It’s only morning but strangely enough your photos made me crave them.
    Magda

    • rachel

      Magda, yes yes in greece – do you know having written this I think I may have eaten marinated fresh anchovies in Greece when I was little – I just don’t remember clearly. I am longing for a Greek holiday, next year I think.

  9. Ruth

    Rachel,
    So glad to see you picking up the anchovy thread again. Such beautiful, silvery beasties. I finally got around to making a version of the crumbs you wrote about and they were delicious; despite the fact that anchovies in Prague are the bog standard and I used Panko (long day at work but I sort of liked the idea of using Japanese crumbs).
    I have just got back from Portugal and the fish there…reading your blog will be the closest I get to fresh fish until Christmas carp in December.

    • rachel

      Hi Ruth
      Glad you made the crumbs and really glad you liked them – gosh, just thinking about them, lunch perhaps. I grew up on bog standard anchovies and so I have a deep, profound affection for the little brown things, they are my anchovy of choice for the crumbs.

  10. Beautiful! I’ve never actually prepared fresh anchovies, although I love them so. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them fresh over in Philly. (Or for that matter, fresh sardines, which I love even more.)

    I think I should call my fishmonger and make a weekend project of it. You know, my college roommate (who was from Milano,) had a girlfriend, also Italian, named Alice. Like the anchovy. She was such a sweet girl. Here’s hoping she left Luca like the concaved chest jerk, that he was.
    :)

    • rachel

      Christine, I think this could work with small sardine fillets! The weekend project sounds good – wish I was down to road so I could come and join in, I love a good project. Concave Luca haha, yes heres hoping Alice got rid of the jerk !

  11. snowmoonelk

    How funny! I bought some of these in Sainsbury’s this very morn!!! I shall be having them later, for a light supper.

  12. Mmmmmm… anchovies. Because of this post I might end up calling my first born child Alice.

    Good call on ending things with the anchovy hater! I’m a little ashamed to say I’ve ended many a blossoming relationship because of fussy-eating men. A life of no anchovies is no life at all!

    • rachel

      Now that is the best comment/compliment ever – fantastic, baby Alice will be a star. Oh dear fussy-eating men are so very dreary, no time indeed!

  13. what a totally delicious post. i devoured it, even though i don’t devour fish any longer. i had to read every word.

  14. On my top ten list of things to do while in Italy, gut anchovies with Rachel.

    So fresh. Their eyes so clear and wide. The color, amazing. I need to go in search of here in Balto.

  15. I’ve never eaten an anchovy, and this is honestly the first time they’ve ever seemed appealing to me!

    • rachel

      Wendy go forth and search. Preserved ones are quite particular but have a wonderful, salty and heady flavour. It is worth buying the best quality you can and then using them very sparingly at first. If you can find the fresh ones, buy them, they are fantastic little fish

  16. Rachel, your writing is superb, from your father’s take on how to spread his Gentlemen’s Relish to Vincenzo’s understanding of the importance of anchovies le palle to your rough-and-tumble fishmarket experience—whoa.

    I don’t know if I’ve ever seen fresh anchovies in Nashville, no matter—I’ve virtually dined on them, this post.

  17. tu sei mitica. x shayma

  18. Mi piacciono tanti i tuoi alici marinati. Ne voglio subito.

  19. Lovely piece, as ever. I adore the fact that you count your ex’s lack of love for anchovies as a contributory factor in the break-up. I know precisely what you mean.

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  21. “the oompapa in montpellier butter” … ! this will stick with me for years, i know.

    i came late in life to anchovy-love, but have been doing my best to make up for lost time. mostly tipping tins into all manner of greens, but i’ve been known to sneak them in to this and that, also.

    fresh, though, that’s new. and intriguing. (if unlikely, in ohio!) making a mental note, for another time and place…

  22. colleen

    I am reading all of Andrea Camillieri novels
    They r translated n he always speaks of his meals with relish
    So wanted to know what was so delicious about these
    Would love to make them
    I live in Minnesota (actually mentioned in one novel )

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